In Search of the Mach Turtle

A reporter tags along as a South Florida PI searches for a missing trawler in Cuba, then finishes the job by battling with the boat's owner

Though he's gone a bit soft around the middle, you'd never mistake Kellerman for an accountant. At the age of 36, he has 18 years' experience with the Army's 20th Special Forces Group, which is based in Fort Lauderdale and attached to the Florida National Guard. He has the fireplug build, close-cropped hair, square jaw, ramrod posture, and in-your-face demeanor that say "military," even when he's wearing Dockers and a polo shirt. He also has the jones for action that so many soldiers never seem to kick. He regularly still ships out to Central America with his unit for jungle training and "winning hearts and minds" intelligence-type stuff he can't really talk about.

That's his part-time gig. The rest of the time he operates Special Ops Associates, a Deerfield Beach investigative agency that he owns and has given the slogan "Confidential Solutions For Unconventional Problems." It sounds like dirty deeds done dirt cheap, but Kellerman operates on this side of the law. Special Ops specializes in executive protection, corporate security training, maritime security, and something called "High Value Asset Recovery." Translation: stealing back stolen boats. He works about 12 cases per year, usually only expensive boats. At his standard rate of 10 percent of the vessel's value, the cheap ones -- less than $50,000 -- aren't worth the time. To date he's never failed to locate a vessel he's been hired to find. Once, in the Bahamas, he not only found a stolen boat, he also nabbed the guy who took it. He brought them both back to the U.S.

Which is why he's standing in the Nassau airport, handing over a wallet-size version of his dossier.

Owner Mike English at the wheel of the Mach Turtle before she was pinched
Owner Mike English at the wheel of the Mach Turtle before she was pinched
All my children: Designer Stephen Seaton keeps tabs on just about every boat that comes off his drawing board
Melissa Jones
All my children: Designer Stephen Seaton keeps tabs on just about every boat that comes off his drawing board

In late July a Maryland resident named Mike English hired Kellerman to find and recover the Mach Turtle. They signed a contract stipulating that Kellerman gets $15,000 plus expenses if he finds the boat. A few days after getting the job, he learned through an informant in Fort Lauderdale that the boat is docked at Marina Hemingway, Havana, third canal in, next to some kind of touristy pirate ship. The plan is to "set eyes on the boat" Sunday, hop aboard early Monday morning, fix anything that needs fixing, pay outstanding harbor bills, and putter toward Nassau some 350 nautical miles away. At the Mach Turtle's cruising speed of about eight knots (roughly nine miles per hour) it'll be about a two-day trip.

Once he's back in the Bahamas, Kellerman's job will be done. He will turn the helm over to Brian Newton, a captain hired by English to pilot the boat from Nassau to Annapolis, Maryland. Newton is a ruddy-complected, red-haired professional captain who lives on a 97-year-old tug in Connecticut. He's carrying a heavy satchel full of charts and legal papers. In it are two $7500 checks bearing Kellerman's name: one to be handed over when the boat is found, the other when it's in Nassau. As it turns out, it's money Kellerman may never see.

Once we're in Cuba, we'll have to time our departure to avoid the Cuban navy gunship that goes out on regular four-hour patrols past the mouth of Marina Hemingway. And there's one other concern: Kellerman's source says someone was seen aboard the Mach Turtle recently. "Not a problem," says Kellerman, a grin on his face. "We'll just tie him up and leave him at the dock."

The plane to Havana is two hours late. The private eye and the captain pass the time in the lounge drinking Kalik beer and strategizing. "That marina is a hard place to get out of, and it's a slow fucking boat," says Kellerman. "It will take us two hours to get out into international waters."

"That doesn't mean anything, except there'll be more water under us when we sink," answers Newton, drawing on a hand-rolled cigarette.

Nassau to Havana is a popular route, and the Russian-made jetliner is full. It's also hot and cramped. The Russians have somehow managed to best their American counterparts by shoving the seats even closer together. On the plus side, there's free Cristal beer and a gorgeous Caribbean sunset outside to keep the passengers entertained.

The airport in Havana is as clean, bright, and modern as any in the United States, just smaller. International passengers wind through long hallways and down a flight of stairs before reaching customs. There you shove your passport and tourist card through a slotted glass window to an agent hunkered over a glowing computer screen in a dark booth. He punches keys and scrutinizes your documents for a few minutes, then buzzes you through a door at the far end of the booth. You pass through the metal detectors, and welcome to Cuba.

Kellerman clears customs as quickly as any of the thousands of Americans who snub Uncle Sam each year and trade with the enemy. He's not, apparently, a wanted man. Newton is detained for a few minutes by customs agents curious about his safety-orange cell phone, but he too is soon spit out the other side.

A taxi ride through the dimly lit streets of Havana -- zipping by milling pedestrians and suicidal dogs, manned guard shacks and police on every corner -- ends at the gate to Marina Hemingway. "Barco Wanderlust," Kellerman calls out to the guard, who waves the taxi by. Kellerman's source said to tell anyone who asks that he's staying on a boat called Wanderlust. So far, so good.

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