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

Before the lobster arrives, Kellerman is outside on the pay phone calling Hernando, his Cuban contact. He returns to the table fuming. Hernando doesn't know a thing. Hasn't seen the Mach Turtle. Has no idea who Kellerman is or what he's talking about.

"McGhee's life just took a turn for the worse," says Kellerman, hacking savagely at his lunch with a steak knife. "I guarantee it."

We continue east to Varadero for good measure, but the Mach Turtle isn't there. It's not in Cuba, and it never was.

Cuba sí, Mach Turtle no: Cristobal Reinaldo (left), Dave Kellerman (center), and Brian Newton stop searching and start drinking
Bob Whitby
Cuba , Mach Turtle no: Cristobal Reinaldo (left), Dave Kellerman (center), and Brian Newton stop searching and start drinking

Does Stephen Seaton remember the Mach Turtle? Silly question. Do mothers remember their children? Do artists remember their masterpieces?

Of course Seaton remembers. Her deep hull cutting a graceful, rising arc from stern to bow. Her blocky superstructure. Her twin spun-aluminum outriggers that performed double duty as stabilizers in heavy seas and as boat booms. And that pilothouse, sporting reverse glass that sloped inward from top to bottom, affording the captain a commanding view of the vessel and its progress on the mighty ocean.

"It's always been one of my favorites," says the affable Seaton between forkfuls of Cobb salad at the Bimini Boatyard restaurant. "They're all like my children."

Seaton, age 54, was a young man just starting out as a boat designer when he created the Mach Turtle in 1972. It was good enough to earn a mention in Robert Beebe's book Voyaging Under Power, considered a seminal work on recreational, open-ocean cruising. Beebe writes, "Her interior is interesting. It was designed for the owner's queen-sized double bed and the bathtub, both of which were so large the vessel had to be built around them. The forward cabin is laid out for grandchildren, with other (convertible) sleeping facilities in the saloon." Seaton also had to build a steering system around an old wheel and compass his client insisted on installing. "We had to figure out how to make the antique work with the modern," he says. "We did it. The boat has a really nice feel to it."

The Mach Turtle is one of less than a dozen Seaton-designed trawlers built by the now-defunct Durbeck boat yard in Bradenton. Seaton's Durbeck trawlers are prized to this day for their solid construction, fuel economy, and angular good looks. A professor in Tennessee recently purchased one and spent $250,000 refurbishing it, Seaton says with obvious pride.

Seaton has made a name for himself, creating hundreds of vessels from sailboats to powerboats, yachts to dinghies. He's now part owner of Peer Gynt Yachts Inc., a Fort Lauderdale boat-building company that counts some of the wealthiest people in the world among its clients. But the remarkable thing about Seaton, apart from his resemblance to a pre-booze-bloated Ernest Hemingway, is the fact that he remembers virtually every boat he's ever designed. And he knows where most of them are. People call him regularly with updates, saying they saw the such-and-such at so-and-so place just the other day.

But nobody was calling about the Mach Turtle. It was pilfered, then the news stopped. For years Seaton had no idea what had become of it. "This one just dropped off the face of the earth," he says.

Seaton designed the boat for an airline pilot who lived on board with his wife in Dinner Key for ten years. On weekends the couple would take the boat to the Bahamas. "They absolutely loved it," he recalls.

They sold the boat to John and Otilie English of Erie, Pennsylvania, in the mid-'80s. The Englishes cruised extensively in the boat, recalls son Mike, and lived aboard for long periods of time. Mike English himself spent about five years living on the boat and was enamored of it. "It's a serious offshore boat," he says. "You could take it to Bermuda from New York City, then down into the islands. It was a hell of a boat."

In 1991 Mike's parents sold the Mach Turtle to Fort Lauderdale resident Daniel Perrin for $180,000 -- $90,000 down and monthly payments of $1058.68. Perrin kept up the payments until April 1995, then stopped. He didn't return the boat, he just stopped paying for it. (Perrin did not return phone calls or respond to inquiries at his Fort Lauderdale apartment for this story.) Naturally John and Otilie English wanted their boat back. They tried unsuccessfully to have it declared stolen with Fort Lauderdale police and the Coast Guard, but neither agency would take a report. "Here's a stolen boat, the guy is located in Fort Lauderdale, and I can't get them to service a warrant," says Mike English. "They didn't want the trouble."

Mike says his mother and father were in failing health and simply gave up. "My parents were old and dying; they just didn't pursue this thing," he explains. John died in June 1996, and Otilie died in December 1998.

The Mach Turtle was still out there somewhere, perhaps even in Fort Lauderdale. But no one was looking for it.

It's not unusual for authorities to be less than enthused about finding a stolen boat. In fact in Florida it's the norm, even though the state leads the nation in boat theft. According to the most recent FBI statistics, 6538 boats were listed as stolen in Florida as of July 1998, roughly twice as many as in second-place California. But in terms of retrieving boats, there's little coordination among police agencies. If a boat is stolen in Fort Lauderdale, police in Deerfield Beach or Hollywood or anywhere else in Broward County might not know about it. And the Broward Sheriff's Office's marine patrol is primarily concerned with water safety; BSO handles stolen-boat cases through its auto-theft division. Don't count on the Florida Marine Patrol either. That agency's new mandate is to concentrate on safety and environmental infractions.

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