Terror Out of the Night

By Tom Neale, 10/27/2011


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We lay anchored in the evening, to the east of Gun Cay in the Bimini Chain of the Bahamas. The warm humid spring air sent mixed signals of whether the next day was going to be the good Gulf Stream crossing day we had expected. We'd hastened across the Great Bahamas Banks to make this weather window. We listened to the evening high seas weather on the SSB. We always do this, morning and evening, but we did it this night with concern. It just didn't feel right. And it wasn't.

Out of nowhere, with no previous warning from the weather forecasters, a tropical depression was forming right over top of us. It was forecast to become a low and then possibly a storm, within the next 24 hours. If you've anchored off Gun or Cat Cay, you know it's no place to ride out a serious storm. The best thing we could do was to continue with our plans to get back to the coast, but move them up. We'd planned to leave after first light the next morning, with the rising sun behind us, so that we could pick our way between the reefs to get out to the Stream. But we feared that might be too late. So in the last of the day's light we very carefully found our way through the cut and anchored to the west of Gun Cay. We don't like to anchor there because, even in an easterly, swell wrapping in from the Atlantic can make it miserable. But we were exhausted from traveling and desperately needed a few hours sleep. From that anchorage we could leave shortly after midnight and have no trouble finding deep water in the dark. And according to all our weather sources, that would be plenty of time to get across before things got bad. They were wrong.

Customs boats ready for training.
We could tell that the wind was beginning to rise around midnight as we weighed anchor and headed west, still trusting the forecasters. It would only be around 45 miles and we couldn't stay where we were. We'd had plenty of sails from hell across the stream, but the winds, if and when they built, were supposed to be from the southeast. They weren't.

As we left soundings and headed out we looked back longingly, wishing there was a good anchorage. We saw a search light on the water and assumed another boat was pulling anchor. The wind kept rising. Our daughters, then quite young, were asleep in their forward stateroom. Mel and I decided to stand watch together throughout the trip; it would be safer and it was too rough for us to sleep anyway. And it got rougher and rougher as the winds developed a slight northerly slantthe last thing you want to see happening in the stream.

The roar of wind and waves was becoming louder and louder, but suddenly we realized that we were hearing more than wind and waves. About an hour or so out we heard the roar of huge engines astern. We could see nothing. The engines got closer. I was hoping that this was a large power vessel also making a run to safety. But where were his running lights?

He didn't have any burning. We called out to him on the VHF and got no reply. We were astounded as the large go-fast boat zoomed up on our port quarter and passed very closely. In the lightning flashes we could see the occupants. They were dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, some had on scarfs, some had bandannas over their heads, most had beards. They were heavily armed with automatics. And then they were gone, roaring off slightly to the south west, in the direction of Miami.

We knew what was going on. These were drug smugglers running a load into the States. They'd been picking up a drop back off the cay. That's what the spotlight was all about. They probably figured we'd seen them and had come by to check us out. We were incredibly lucky, we thought, that they hadn't decided to take us out. It would have been short and easy work for them, almost foolproof out there in the blackness of the stormy Gulf Stream. With all those guys and all those automatic weapons, they could take out our antennae on top of the mast about the same time they were riddling us and our boat. Even if we had been able to get off a Mayday call they would be long gone, very far away in the increasingly impenetrable storm. We spoke briefly about how lucky we were. Until we heard it again.

Astern, way back off our port quarter, the roar of large motors. "They're coming back," I yelled. "They've circled out and around and they're coming back." We called friends on the VHF radio. We knew they were somewhere behind us. We said we had trouble with another boat and to please listen for our call… or no call. Then the fast boat was beside us.

It was the same boat, same scroungy looking guys, same guns. It came along side, slowing, wallowing in the seas, most of the guys along one sidethe side closest to us. "We're coming aboard," someone yelled, barely audible over the storm.

"Who are you," I yelled back.

"We're DEA and Customs and Coast Guard and we're coming aboard."

Tom’s Tips About Boarding

1. Always be courteous, polite, respectful and professional when government forces are boarding.

2. If you feel that an announced boarding is unsafe because of sea and/or weather conditions, respectfully note your objection and your reasons, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't comply with authorized orders.

Click here to see all of Tom's Tips

RIGHT, I thought. Even if they were they wouldn't be stupid enough to attempt a boarding in this storm.

"Show me your ID," I lamely yelled. Some guy held up something which I obviously couldn't see. Then they were close in with several guys climbing over the rails, spilling onto our decks, clutching their weapons. They showed me a card again and gave me the same identification. They said they just wanted a quick check of the boat.

At that point we were so relieved and so happy that I said, "Man, you can't believe how relieved we are. We thought you were the bad guys." We were all hanging on for dear life still, and they said they wanted me to accompany them below. I said, "Sure, but we've got two young daughters in their beds up forward. Don't scare them and don't shoot them if you see movement." They told me they wouldn't go forward. It didn't take long below for at least one of them to start feeling very seasick. They quickly left, obviously aware that we weren't what they were looking for.

This manner of approach and boarding was highly improper, in my opinion. But it happened. In defense of those guys, I'll say that somehow the boat operator didn't ram us and that the boarding crew was professional. Also, several days later, back on the US coast, we heard a news story about a huge drug bust that had just happened in the vicinity of where we'd been anchored. We assume they had intel and were expecting something and we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The people on the fast boat had probably been in undercover guise. But that place was a standard jumping off point for cruisers heading back to the states, and a standard checking in point for those arriving in the Bahamas.

So that's the excuse, or reason, depending upon you perspective. From our perspective, there was no excuse for coming up on us like that and putting a party aboard in that weather, even though we deeply respect and admire those people who are trying to keep us safe from drugs, terrorism and many other threats. But you'd think they could at least have figured out a better way to let us (and boats in similar situations) know, as they roared out of the storm, unlit, unidentified and looking like vicious criminals, that they weren't going to kill us.

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