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

Which he is.

And English knows it. So a few days after signing the release, he sends another captain on a recovery mission to Guatemala. "I'm in a mad scramble to get there before someone else does," the captain says.

Kellerman toys with the idea of beating English's new captain to Guatemala and claiming the boat himself, but by now Hurricane Bret is churning up the Gulf, and the ride back would be rough at best. There's that and the fact that the Mach Turtle's mechanical condition is a big question mark after years of neglect. He decides it would be prudent to file his lien and bide his time.

It turns out to be a good call. English's new captain is beset by problems from the start. A small fire breaks out near the exhaust pipe, and the Mach Turtle has to be towed to Mexico. The captain is finally able to nurse the boat to a port somewhere close to the U.S. By late August English is downtrodden about the boat's condition. "It's totally stripped, in horrible condition, a total wreck," he says. He's also tightlipped about its location for fear that Kellerman might find it and grab it. "It's in the Carolinas," English says. "I really don't want to say any more than that."

Meanwhile in Fort Lauderdale, Kellerman works his sources. He calls friends in Georgia and Maryland to be on the lookout for the boat. And he gets a big break when he checks the Broward County court files.

It seems English is wanted in Florida on an outstanding warrant for felony grand theft. Checkmate for Kellerman. If English won't pay the fee, Kellerman will mention to the authorities in Maryland that they have a fugitive from justice living among them. He might do it even if he does collect. "I'm going to get him thrown in jail, then I'm going to visit him. And I'll look him in the eye and say, 'I told you not to fuck me over.'"

In early September a source calls and suggests Kellerman look for the Mach Turtle in West End, Grand Bahama. There's no way he's going to let a chance like this slip away. When Hurricane Floyd passes, he's on a plane to Freeport. He shows Bahamian authorities the power of attorney that English signed authorizing him to take possession of the boat the first time in Cuba -- which English never officially rescinded -- and mentions that English might be in trouble with the law. That's all the Bahamians need to hear. "They were glad to be rid of the boat," says Kellerman.

A day later -- September 19, his 37th birthday -- Kellerman motors back into Fort Lauderdale at the helm of the MachTurtle after a nine-hour ride through six-foot swells. The trip cost about $1000 in airfare, cab rides, and dock charges. Added to the original fee and other expenses he's incurred, the latest excursion brings the bill to $21,000 and change. The next day he faxes a demand for payment to English, mentioning that he knows about the warrant. "It's in Broward goddamn County now," says Kellerman. "If English wants to do business with me, he's got to come here."

English's plans are unknown. He stopped returning phone calls after Kellerman grabbed the boat.

As for the Mach Turtle, she's looking a bit rough. Her furniture has been stripped out, leaving bare floors and walls. Her paint is cracked and peeling, her woodwork is rotting in places where leaking windows have let in rain, and the back of her pilothouse is blackened from the exhaust-stack fire. She needs someone to love her again, someone to invest a few hundred hours of sweat equity and a few thousand dollars on a paint job. Mechanically she's sound, her Cummins diesel engine smooth and strong. And the view from her sloping pilothouse windows is as inspiring as it must have been 27 years ago, when she was fresh out of the boat yard. Grab that big, antique ship's wheel, and you can almost hear her whisper, "Let's sneak out of here and see the world."

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: Bob_Whitby@newtimesbpb.com

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