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

The marina is a walled-off city unto itself, complete with store, restaurant, and hotel. There's also a bar, the Chan Chan, which sells dark, lovely, seven-year-old Cuban rum for $2 a glass, $10.15 a bottle. A great thirst has come over the group, but Kellerman can't sit still. He drops his bags at the bar and sets off on a recon mission to "lay eyes" on the Mach Turtle. Meanwhile Newton rolls another cigarette and sits back to enjoy the soft breeze blowing in off the ocean. Though anxious to find the boat, he's not as high-strung as Kellerman. There's more than enough time to put away a few Cristals and talk about boats.

In the early '90s, Newton was a captain in Fort Lauderdale for five years, but he got sick of the backstabbing and cutthroat competition for work. "Lauderdale is full of Captain Dons and Captain Dicks who go out and buy a polo shirt with their name on it, then sit in a bar swilling beer and telling lies," he says, digging into a shrimp cocktail. "They're all over Fort Lauderdale for $75 a day."

Newton won't work for less than $300 a day. And he won't live in Florida anymore. "I sit up in New England, and I'll come down when I need to," he says. "People will call me instead of working with local captains."

Welcome to Broward Goddamn County: When the owner won't pay, Kellerman takes the boat
Melissa Jones
Welcome to Broward Goddamn County: When the owner won't pay, Kellerman takes the boat

Kellerman returns in 30 minutes with bad news: no boat. No need to panic yet, though. He made it around only half of the marina. After another round of Cristals, we take off to canvas the rest. It's important to keep drinking, says Kellerman, to maintain our cover. "We need two beers in each hand so we're just dumb, drunk gringos."

Electricity is a precious, expensive commodity in Cuba, so lights are cut wherever possible. It's pitch-black around the marina. More unnerving are the security guards, who have a way of popping out of bushes and concealed bunkers like night-blooming jasmine. But they're uniformly polite and unintrusive, thinking perhaps there's no need to hassle a bunch of dumb, drunk gringos.

Still no Mach Turtle.

All the bumbling and stumbling around attracts the attention of one marina guard stationed in an unlit shack near the terminus of an access road. Newton, the most fluent Spanish-speaker in the group, explains that we are looking for friends on board a boat named the Mach Turtle. The guard, trying to be helpful, returns to his shack and gets on the phone, making Kellerman very nervous. "Who the hell is he calling?" he demands of no one in particular. Communists in unlit guard shacks making midnight phone calls to persons unknown clearly goes against his training.

"Probably just the front gate," says Newton.

"This isn't good," says Kellerman. "It's midnight, we're wandering around looking for a boat. It isn't good."

Back to the Chan Chan to refresh our cover and regroup. A boozy, scrawny, middle-aged man with red hair ambles over to the table. "You guys Americans?" he asks in a thick drawl. Robert Hightower's his name. We just call him Bob.

Bob's an American ex-pat who's found the Third World ambiance and abundance of cheap prostitutes in Havana to his liking. "It don't take no cultivating," he says, "it just takes $20." Bob's either a harmless high-seas boozehound or a very well disguised CIA operative, we can't decide which. But he's buying drinks, so it really doesn't matter. After a half-dozen or so mojitos (rum, water, mint, and sugar), he hops on his Suzuki motorcycle, which he brought over strapped to the deck of his boat, and rides the 200 or so yards home at walking speed, propped up on either side by caring Cuban bartenders who make sure he gets there all right. We call it a night.

Monday dawns clear and still, an excellent day to sail, notes Newton. If we can find the boat.

Kellerman hires a jovial, rotund cabby named Cristobal Reinaldo to drive us around the marina and flash a photocopy of the Mach Turtle at anyone and everyone we can find. Nobody has seen the boat. We stop and ask a menacing-looking guy sporting dark, wraparound glasses and a ponytail. Our questions make him nervous. His demeanor makes us nervous. Nothing.

Reinaldo mentions that there are two other marinas on the north coast of Cuba at Cojimar and Varadero. It's a three-hour, 160-kilometer, $180 cab ride, but there's really no choice. The person who stole the boat may have got wind that someone was looking for it and squirreled it away somewhere else. Kellerman, ever eloquent, puts it this way: "If there's a marina on the coast, we need to check it out. Otherwise we're just here pulling our dicks, waiting for Christmas."

Cojimar turns out to be a small inlet with room for only 20 or 30 boats. The Mach Turtle is not among them. A few kilometers to the east we stop for lunch -- fresh grilled lobster on a bed of pan-seared vegetables -- and the group's mood turns foul. Kellerman and Newton are coming to the realization that they've been had. Newton thinks the boat's been sold. Kellerman thinks he's been lied to by his informant, a Fort Lauderdale boat captain named Mike McGhee. Kellerman paid McGhee $2500 for the tip. "To have someone feed me bullshit information, I've never had that happen before," he says. "I can't believe he'd be that stupid. He lives ten miles from me."

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