My old man got back from Vietnam in one piece and left the states for salvage work in the Bahamas. He was a decorated diver for the Navy. He didn’t mind talking about the war, especially when he was drunk and playing cards with the other wreckers and haulers. He would laugh about the good times in the Mekong river when his crew would sneak up on enemy units and “get some.” My mother had left him a long time ago, so it was just us two, working an old Bertram named Wicked, bringing up salvage and hauling a few luxury goods or moving illegals once in a while. We flew the Bahamian flag because that was where the Wicked was registered. Sometimes we flew the American flag to act as tourists or to scare off Haitian chaser boats. We changed flags as needed, depending on the situation.
The late night fires on the beach were often set to lure in boats looking for a protected berth during storms. Thinking the glow of the light their salvation, they were lured into the sharp coral—a razor-like reef that surrounds most Bahamian islands. We sat around the bonfires screaming into the wind, calling for our good fortune and for the bad fortune of passing boats—a guttural taunting of the sea gods. And, on calm nights, the constant bragging around the fires was a verbal, cursing release of discontent. It got loud, and it got physical. Fights were common. Rum will do that to that to the worst of friends. I called them friends because they were all we had. Frenchie, Booch, Ben and their crews were mysterious characters and modern day, pirates. I never ask them where they were from because they were all illegal like us. I imagine they came from the old French and Spanish crown colonies on islands scattered south along the Lesser Antilles–little dots of coral and volcanic rock.
I took the punches and slaps from my old man. He was a large, dark, incendiary man about six foot and five inches. His hair was always slicked back and coal black. His skin was perpetually tanned to dark leather. His eyes were green and shiny against his tanned face. He would force me to dance around the fire and drink rum while the others had a chance to land a punch or trip me. This was their way of testing my patience and my manhood. This was all I knew. I thought all kids had to endure this abuse. But I kept this abuse in my heart. Often, after the fire had dwindled out, my old man would carry me to the dingy, dump me in, and paddle to the boat. He hauled me over into the scuppers and left me to find my own bunk. He didn’t do this because of some paternal duty or love for his only son. He needed me. He needed my young body that could snake past the wreckage to the hidden sweet spots and haul out the goods. That’s all. Somehow, this was enough for a sixteen-year-old kid that lived most of his life on a boat or underwater. I knew nothing else. But this would change.
We all slept on our boats tied to homemade moorings behind the tiny coral islands, barely protected from night blows and giant swells. Tired and drunk, we passed out, and slept through the night unaware of the swirling water and shifting wind. Often, I would awake and hear that whistling wind through the small holes in the coral. And, despite my anticipation, I knew somebody out there was in trouble.
In early September, the wind blew heavy for three days. As soon as we could see a clear sky, we were out checking all the usual places where amateur sailors would miss the gaps in the reef. We checked that big red coral head that had seen so many bottoms that it was scraped bone white on top in crisscrossing lines. Nothing there. We motored as fast as we could to the coral that touched the air at low tide but lay right over a hundred foot drop. The Bahamian water was so clear that you usually didn’t need to get into the water to spot a wreck. My old man whipped the boat around so fast I almost fell off while looking over the edge of the sheer drop. He raced as fast as he could to a blue hole that had ripped open some big yachts over the years. We got there, circled a bit and caught a glimpse of white hull sticking straight up. It looked pristine—like it had been swallowed whole, stuck against the coral mouth of a deep blue hell. It was jammed into that hole like a toothpick. We quickly put out a dive flag and our Shamrock flag with the name Flanagan on it to claim the site. Finally, after trying different approaches, we anchored in a sandy patch as close as we could get to the hole. We were only around 25-30 meters off the wreck. The surge was still tossing us around, and we had to wait till it stilled and the tide went slack. We watched as other wreckers came by to take a look and we just gave them the finger. We had ours.
There is no time to fuck around when salvaging in the Bahamas. It’s not that the Bahamian coast guard would bother us, its just we had a deal to get the loot out fast, and they take a percentage. That was it. They let us salvage just long enough before their bosses, or the US Coast Guard could get wind of it. Rushing a dive is dangerous, but we had no choice most of the time.
When the surge had subsided, we went down in just mask, fins and snorkel. From what we could see, until the dark sapphire blue enveloped her down just below the wheelhouse, the yacht was about 100 feet long with her nose stuck straight down into the abyss. On the stern in gold lettering was the word “Serendipity.” It had a Panamanian registration. From stern to the surface was about 35 feet. So we were looking at a dive of about 135 feet maximum. We had to use tanks. There was no way around it.
We put on shorties, old Navy buoyancy stabilizers (BCDs) with twin 63 cubic foot tanks. We each carried an extra 80 cubic foot aluminum tank with the regulator attached for more bottom time and emergencies. I always carried a pony bottle strapped to my chest. It gave me an extra 15-20 minutes if necessary. My old man never bothered with redundant systems. He wasn’t careless, just arrogant. He was very experienced and knew exactly when to come up and off-gas slowly.
We got into the water, dived to the stern and tied off a line to the rail to guide us up and down. Both 80 tanks were tied to that line at the stern rail. And, down we went carefully feeling our way down into the stern area checking for cracks and unstable parts broken off during the storm. I never liked diving in a blue hole. Natives told stories of swirling currents that pull you down during a big tide change. Cutting on our dive lights, we could see that part of the yacht’s bottom was cracked, but she was practically whole.
Diving a wreck is always a certain kind of crazy. The narrow passages, floating objects, and sharp edges were to be avoided. You never know when the boat is going to roll or slide down into the deep. And, with wrecks, there is always that ever-present urge to go farther and stay longer.
My old man hovered in the rear common area while he gestured for me to descend amidships into an upper stateroom. The water was still clear, but I could almost touch the blue water line. The door to the stateroom was stuck, but I managed with my Marine K-bar to pry open the top and crack the whole thing open. When I opened it and put my eyes on the room, I jumped and backed into the swaying door. There was a woman in a fetal position spinning around from one corner of the cabin to the others. Her hair looked long and red. It spread out like an octopus reaching for the surface. The viz was so good I could read the instructions on a fire extinguisher. I looked around and used my knife to open drawers and pry open closets. I found nothing. I checked out the swirling woman, and she held nothing on her person. Nothing here but dogged down brass hatches. I checked my air and made my ascent up to the stern rail. I could not see my old man anywhere. Maybe he had already gone back to the boat. As I was about to ascend up the guideline, a package came floating past me following the current up and out. I managed to grab it and brought it with me. It was wrapped in paper with a clear plastic outer shell which must have given it some buoyancy. I could see that it would reach the surface eventually. I left the spare tanks tied on the guideline.
When I hauled out and handed up my flippers and tanks, I could see my old man standing there with a pile of these packages around his feet.
“Hurry the fuck up.”
I threw my package into the pile.
“We scored this time, kid. This mega yacht was carrying weed and coke. All we have to do is get this shit to Nassau. I’ve got some friends that will take it off our hands.”
All the time I’m thinking that I don’t need this shit. Whoever owned it will be coming for it and coming with weapons. My old man carried a BAR, a couple of .45s and a marine sniper rifle. That’s a pretty good arsenal against Haitian pirates, but druggers carried the big stuff—M60s, grenade launchers with White Phosphorus rounds, and M-16s. I’m a good shot with the BAR which can eat up a ships hull. But against a machine gun, it’s practically useless. And, I know my old man is thinking the same shit but has got that wide feverish look in his eye. There is no reason to say anything.
We rested and then did another dive to see if there were any more packages of dope. And, we both did a sweep of the yacht down into the sapphire blue line where the viz disappeared into midships. I cut on my dive light. In the wheelhouse, I could see the captain. He was strapped in his chair, one hand still squeezing the wheel. His eyes were partially open, and his skin was as white as the coral. A small crab exited his mouth and deftly crawled back in his nose. I jumped back.
We saw no more dope, and when the boat shook, I was ready to get out. But just before I left the bad viz, I saw a shiny glint that crossed my lights. It looked like a small bright light or a brass fitting laying cockeyed, past the wheelhouse and down the stairs running to the V berth area. It was a quick look, but it peaked my natural wrecker interest. I could feel the change of the current as the tide was pulling us back and we moved up to the stern where the tanks were. We were done for this day. So we lazily climbed out of the blue hole, picked up the 80 cubic foot tanks and followed the line out of the water. By the time I made the surface my tanks were red lining.
My old man was happier than I had ever seen him. He had that piratical smile that I’d often seen when he drank rum or blackmailed illegals into giving up all their money. But this time, he was almost dancing around as he stowed away the dope into the lockers. He pulled out his .45 from its hiding place and loaded it with hollow points as I watched.
“This is no fucking place for a damn skinny kid like you. Should have left you with your whore of a mother. Go get a .45, clean it well, oil it, and load it. Carry it in your back under your t-shirt. NOW!” As if a .45 would make a difference.
I really hated it when my old man got that Vietnam—I’m a bad motherfucker talk going—it was paranoia or agent orange maybe. I didn’t know what to say except my usual “Yes, Sir.” He was one mean son of a bitch, and I always wondered if he transformed into this person in Vietnam.
I then decided not to tell him about the glint of light I had seen as we exited the wreck. That was all mine, now. Fuck him. When I went down again, I would try and locate that shine without him.
Although the current was rushing in and out and the swells were yawing the boat, we stayed on the site to protect it from others. We put out another anchor for good measure. This was not what the Bahamian Coast Guard liked. But this site was the mother lode, and my old man was not going to give it up without a fight.
The night came and went without incident, and at first light, we checked our equipment for another dive. He was not going to miss a single package of dope off this wreck. We took the big multi-lights which are hard to handle but give you incredible visibility at depth. There were a few blue sharks on the surface as I descended and I saw a black tip reef shark sneaking around the wreck. Black tips usually just cruise the coral looking to trap fish in the nooks and crannies. They’re harmless unless you spear a fish or a lobster close to them. It’s the white tips that put the fear into me. Oceanic whitetips have been known to venture into the reefs although they prefer the deep, wide ocean. Of all sharks, white tips have killed more humans than any other shark. Just ask the survivors of the USS Indianapolis.
We found practically nothing except spinning bodies and their clothing. He sent me forward as usual. I looked for that shine but could not locate it until a great surge pushed me down to the head area. It was laying there like a path into the V-berth. I left it. I came out of the blue with nothing. My old man found a few bottles of rum and bourbon, so he was happy. We left the hook in the sand, with the stern light on, and took the dingy ashore as it got dark.
That night, the party was on. I built a fire pit on Highborne Cay and gathered all the driftwood I could find. When the rest of the wreckers showed up the fire was blazing, and my old man was already lit up and talking Vietnam. We sat in a circle on fallen Palm tree logs and passed the bottle. There was a lot of needling about our find, but my old man never uttered a word about the wreck except maybe: “Just some brass and fucking sharks” or “What a waste of time in a blue hole that will kill you any second.” He gave up nothing. I remained silent as well, which was my usual self. But, the others didn’t believe that there wasn’t anything left to retrieve since our old Bertram was still anchored near the hole. The rum-soaked conversation turned dirty and violent. I ran the circle, and they rapped my legs with Mangrove switches while they howled at my protestations. At the end of the night, the fire dying slowly, my old man stood as best he could.
“Come here, son. Your johnny on the spot with the tanks and shit. But, you’re fucking useless for anything else”–as if he had done all the diving. Then he punched me in the left eye, and I dropped to the sand. The others tried to help me, but he warned them off.
“What the fuck use are you to me.” Then he missed my face and caught me in the head with his cracked and hardened fists.
That one hurt too much, and I knew I was in for a real beating. He used his entire repertoire on me, including some moves he must have used in Vietnam. Eventually, I lay on the ground for good, choking on sand and bleeding from my left eye and maybe pissing blood. Booch and Ben carried me to the dingy and dumped me in, while my old man rowed to the Wicked, boarded, and passed out, a bottle of bourbon between his legs. I went below, aching and bleeding and holding that heavy .45, feeling its heft.
When the sun was up, my old man was gone. He had taken the dingy, and I knew he was headed for Nassau. My eye was partially shut and purple. My ribs hurt and the welts on my legs had drawn a little blood. Not good for diving. But, I couldn’t get my mind off that shine I had seen falling out of the V-berth. Doing that dive alone was crazy. I could see good enough, but the ribs made it hard to breathe. I knew that at depth, which would be over 100 feet, it would hurt even worse as the pressure squeezed me. I grabbed two full aluminum 80s, suited up, and fell over the side with an old nylon sponge net tied to a long line and made fast on a forward cleat. The surface was dead calm, but the currents below could be pulsing back and forth. I was gonna find that shine before my old man got back.
I tied off at the dive line with the extra tank. Giving the line a good bit of slack to the stern rail of the “Serendipity” in case of rough water pitching the Bertram, I went down to the wreck. Pulling the sponge net with me, I uncoiled as much as I could until I stopped in the wheelhouse, out of reach of the V-berth and made it fast on the binnacle rail with a bit of 1/4 inch line. I was down to over 100 feet. That was far enough. I had to give it some slack as I had the bowline. Then, with one good eye and a pounding heart that hurt my ribs, I made my way down towards the V-berth. I kept my eye on my depth and air as the water column squeezed my ribs till I thought I would implode. With my dual dive lights, I felt my way through the blue sapphire water. The visibility was just as before, and I could only see about five feet ahead of me. I was surrounded by sparkles of blue where a few grunts and groupers were dashing about, in and out of the head. Feeling around the hallway toward the bow is slow going. One of the doors off the head is laying right across my path. I make my way over it since I cant move it. It is jammed tight against the bulkhead. As I make the V-berth, I am sucking air hard. There is little room, and my tank keeps banging the doorway. I look around as best I can but see nothing that catches my eye as that shine did before. Looking at my air, I decide to back out for the long, slow ascent. Loose clothes are swirling around covering my sight. The trash in the water opens up, and then I see it. My light catches a glimpse of what can only be gold. If I bend over the door and down, I can put my hands on them. Shit, I need more air. But the extra 80 tank is all the way back on the stern rail. But after wiggling downward, I reach the bricks. I grab one and then another. They are so heavy, that I have to push off the deck and then off the bulkhead to free myself. Then I increase my buoyancy with some of the whats left in the Aluminum 80 on my back and swim upward with my heavy load to the Binnacle and out of the blue. I put the bricks in the sponge net, untie the load and it bangs against the deck. Then I am crawling to the stern rail, sucking the last bit of air I have on my back. When I reach the spare 80, I grab the regulator and breathe. Then I untie the bowline, and I’m free. I lazily drift upwards, tired and holding onto the line and the tank, stopping to off-gas at various depths. When I am on the boat, I haul up the bricks and marvel at their beauty and meaning. I didn’t want to use my pony bottle on this dive. I had to save it for another dive—-a dive that I have been planning since last night. I hid the gold bricks under my bunk in a rope storage hold.
When my old man came back, I could see that damn stupid look on his face and knew he had accomplished his mission. The swell was building, and the dingy pitched as he neared. I tied off the dingy’s painter to a stern cleat, and he came aboard.
“Aren’t you a fucking sight. Look like a corpse. Make ready to pull the hook and pull in the lines. We are out of here.” I went forward to pull up the anchor.
“I made a killing. I’m gonna take a damn vacation and get away from this damn rock. We are going to Nassau. Gonna find me a girl and a bottle.”
Shit. I could not let him leave just yet. I had no choice but to show him the gold bricks.
I took the gold bricks from the storage hatch and brought them up. He was starting the engine when I showed them to him. He quickly cut the engine and slapped me across the face. I was expecting this.
“Where the fuck did you find these?”
He snatched them from my hands, and I answered.
“They were in the forward berth on the wreck. There are much more.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me, goddamnit!”
“I just found them today while you were gone. I was looking for more of the dope and saw these.”
He could not contain his excitement and started to bark orders while gathering up dive gear. We suited up in full 3mm wetsuits, put on the only two remaining full aluminum 80s on and attached a few chem-lights to our BCDs. We grabbed the biggest dive lights and sat on the edge of the boat, ready to drop over. Conditions worsened. The swells were getting bigger, and the tide was starting to go out. The surge would be strong down in the blue hole, and he knew it. But, his greed pushed him on. Before I could deploy the basket, he dropped over into the water, and I followed him.
While descending, I could feel the surge push me back and forth until I tied the dive line to the stern rail of the yacht. We checked our air and went down into the yacht past the blue line for the gold. He led and I hung back, feeling my leg for my K-bar dive knife. I knew he wouldn’t let me touch the gold. I had counted on it. When he got to the head and the doorway blocking the V berth we were close to maximum depth. He worked hard to fit his giant body over the door. I could tell when he saw the gold. The bubbles from his air shot up covering my mask, blinding me. I went down and after him with my lights guiding him to the head and then the V-berth. Finally, he was stretched over the door, stuffing his wetsuit with gold bars. He was mad with greed. I watched while keeping an eye on my air supply. When he started to get back to the door, banging his load against it and struggling mightily to clear the V berth, I pulled out my K-bar and cut off the dive lights. It went dark blue. My chem-lights would be all he could see of me. I could barely see him while he added air to his BCD. With that weight, I doubt he could reach the buoyancy needed to get himself to the surface. He fought the water and the weight mightily, flailing around to grab hold of anything to get purchase. I could hear him cursing through his mask and calling for me. When I reached the edge of the blue line, and the viz came back to me, I yanked off my chem-lights. He struggled and made his way, crawling along the deck to the clear water. But the weight was just too much for him. He was so weighted with the gold that all he could do was crawl across the deck making progress by pulling himself along whatever he could grab. I stayed back as he called for me. He poked his head out of the sapphire blue, and I grabbed him. He relaxed for a second, and I pulled him out to the stern deck. He wrapped his left hand around the stern rail and rested. Then I quickly spun him around, cut his regulator hoses, poked a hole in his BCD and pushed him out of the wreck. At first, I could see the surprise in his eyes–the absolute disbelief. He struggled to grab anything, but he was too far to starboard nd and missed the big teak rail as he dropped slowly down. The air from his tank was spewing bubbles. As he fell, he refused to drop the gold bars and eventually all I could see was the chem-lights dim until the blue sparkles covered him over like a watery blanket.
With my tank redlined, I went up the dive line after untying it from the stern rail. I got about 35 feet ahead to stop to off gas. Then my tank went empty. I turned on my pony bottle and tried to breathe shallowly. I move up another 35 feet and waited. I could feel the blue hole pull me downward. I had to chance it and climbed up the dive line and made the surface as my pony body went dry. The surface was in turmoil, and the boat was spinning around, tugging on the anchors. I caught the stern and tossed up my gear with one hand on the dive platform. Around and around. The old Bertram spun faster and faster. When I finally got aboard, I started the engine and let it idle. Then I went forward to the anchors. I had no time to pull them up, so I cut the lines to them and was jerked back into a whirlpool spinning around the blue hole. My stern was facing the center of the hole, and I pushed the engine to whatever she could give me. And, I still was whipped around while the engines roared doing nothing. I then turned the bow straight into the whirlpool and spun around without fighting it. There was a great thunder underwater as the yacht let loose of its blue and white trap and rumbled down, breaking up against the coral grave. I increased the power and spun around in the boat until it whipped me out of the whirlpool, spitting me out over lumpy water. She bucked and pitched and rolled. But I was out. I cut the engines back and cruised to deeper water on the outside of the reef.
“Fuck.” I had done it. I felt a freedom that I didn’t know was possible. Automatically, I looked around the boat. I looked down in the galley. I called out.
“Where are you, you son of a bitch.”
I made the gap through the reef and tied up to the mooring. Frenchie’s old fishing boat was close and swinging on its mooring. But, I could not see him. The .45 was down below, and I went to get it and look for the cash my old man had gotten for the dope. It wasn’t under his bunk. After searching the boat for an hour, I found nothing. Then, after I went to check on the weapons which were hidden in a dry box in the bilge. There was the money. All American dollars. It counted out to over 25,000. I had never seen that much money before, and I felt its weight. The money and the gold meant my freedom. Out of the dry box came the BAR with five magazines of tracers and the sniper 303 with a scope and a box of ammo. I knew that the druggers would be coming while I would be leaving. The weapons and the ammo laid across the bunk amidships, ready. Since my old man had been to Nassau and sold the dope, every fucking pirate, drugged, and the local boat would be heading this way. I tried to take a nap but the night was coming, and that was when I would be leaving. But which way?
I could take the inside. But that would squeeze me between Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica. That would not be the best route, especially at night. There is not much water between those islands. The druggers would be coming from the south, maybe from South America, up and through that pass. The Haitian pirates were notorious for sneaking up on sailboats and small fishing boats. So it had to be the outside where the water and current would be on my side. But if I wanted to make that run, I would closely pass the Turks and Caicos and the northern part of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Both had their own sets of trouble. It was a long way around, and fuel would be an issue. I knew this water from trips ESE to the Lesser Antilles. I decided that I would be headed for the BVIs. The British islands were small and scattered close together, a good place to hide. It was safe enough to tie up there unnoticed. I knew some decent people there, and it was full of tourists. My ultimate destination would be way down to Martinique. I would follow the island-dotted curve of the Lesser Antilles and look for a place to get a new boat.
When night came, I waited for the outgoing tide and rode it nicely, shooting the gap between Highborne Cay and Norman Cay out into the trench. Up went the American flag. I used the running lights, the stern light, and the binnacle light to keep any US Cutters off my back. I stayed close to the Exuma chain hugging the islands in case I had to duck out of sight. I had charts all the way down to South America. My old man and I had used them to smuggle illegals up north.
It was slow going, and I found myself at Georgetown, the southeasterly tip of the Exumas after two days. It was sunrise. I tied up at the only pier and went for diesel and water. There were not many boats anchored out in the lagoon because of the expected weather. It was September and Hurricane season. One boat stood out, however. It was a Cigarette boat, a go boat that could outrun just about any other boat except a coastguard cutter. I saw no one onboard and left as soon as I paid for the diesel and water.
I went Northeast. I jumped off the Exuma chain and headed for San Salvador which is where you drop off into the greater Atlantic. There was another island there called Rum Cay which was surrounded by an enormous, slanting, the nearly invisible reef which I had dived on before, spearing fish. This was the Westside and dotted with hundreds of brain corals rising to the surface. I knew that island so well that I didn’t need a chart. It was a natural hiding place for smugglers.
It took all day to reach Rum Cay. Spinner dolphins rode my wake until the water shallowed out and I went to the reef and anchored among the Brain corals close to shore. There were no other boats around, and I went below for a nap. I cut off all my lights.
They didn’t show until it was well dark. The Cigarette boat must have seen my US flag and the “Nassau” on the stern showing my home port in Georgetown, and they didn’t match. Damnit. Stupid mistake.
The engines on the go boat were rumbling as it used a portable spotlight to scan the tiny lagoon. I knew they saw me when the light passed over the Wicked and came back. I started the engines then spun her around on the hook with my stern facing the go boat. They weren’t firing on me because I had the money and the gold on board. They would have to board me. I went below and loaded the BAR with a magazine of green tracers. In the dark, tracers can guide you to your target with their curving trajectory. The fat 30 caliber rounds can tear fiberglass to shreds. I also loaded the sniper rifle as they kept the light on me, looking for a way across. I heard a thump and a faint crunching noise. Then the light on the go boat went crazy, shining all around their boat downward. It lit them up, and I could see three men scrambling to get the boat off the reef. They had hit the reef in their hurry to get to me. I took out the BAR, aimed at the light and let loose that semi-automatic. The tracers bent downward slightly until I had them. Thump, Thump, Thump. Three round bursts were smacking into that go boat, hauling her out. I could see that the searchlight was dropped to the deck and a couple of shadows moving around. Then a couple of shots went wild over my head and one plunked in the water. This time I took another magazine of tracers and emptied it into their hull. Their engine shut off, the light went out, and I could hear the impact of my rounds. Then another round of tracers and I heard some yelling and someone splash into the water. I took another magazine and fired until their engine flamed and I stopped. The light from the fire showed a sinking boat, and I could make out someone in the water. He was swimming towards me. Well, fuck him. I got the sniper rifle, and with the help of the fire’s light, I pulled the trigger twice, and he sank, dead for sure. Shark food. The fire went on for an hour until the superstructure burned down to the waterline and I couldn’t see it in the dark.
The morning came quickly. I pulled up the hook and slowly rounded the reef looking at the burned-out hull. There was nothing left of her except her name on the stern. It said “Vengeance.”
The Wicked and I headed for the good harbor of San Salvador where I would jump off into the Atlantic and head ESE again. I put up the Bahamian flag and tossed the US flag overboard along with the homemade Irish flag. The water was a fine clear purple, and the sky was clear and bright. I smiled as I thought of the possibilities. It was my birthday, and I was seventeen.