If you believe Capt. Ernesto Garfias Ramirez's story, the mysterious sinking was straight out of a Joseph Conrad tale. A tugboat called the Rosarita was chugging north along the coast of Baja California on the night of April 6, 2002, when a storm suddenly overtook it. Twelve-foot waves and 30-mph winds threatened to overturn the tug, so Garfias Ramirez had only one choice to save his boat and the lives of himself and his crew: jettison his multimillion-dollar payload.
Strung out behind the Rosarita on hauling cables that day were a 32-foot boat named the Mary Margaret and a 65-foot submarine called the Looking Glass. The freak storm quickly swamped the Mary Margaret, Garfias Ramirez said, and as she sank, she pulled the Looking Glass with her and threatened the safety of the tug. Cut the cables, the captain ordered.
At first, the story sounded like just one more tale of the cruel, fickle sea claiming another couple of boats. But when the owners of the Looking Glass started to investigate, they found no evidence of a storm off the coast of Baja California that day. What they discovered instead was a bizarre twist in the cursed life of the Looking Glass, a sub that, they contend now, may not be sunk at all.
The submarine, which is worth millions of dollars and requires a three-person crew, was built in Scotland in 1988. It was used briefly to ferry tourists in St. Thomas before being shipped back to Europe. Then in 1999, airline parts distributor Marvin Kottman and partner Rex Evans bought the Looking Glass with a plan to start sub rides in South Florida. They sent it for repairs at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, spending $1.25 million before taking reporters on an inaugural ride in Palm Beach County on July 22, 2000.
When reporters from the Stuart News, the Palm Beach Post, and other newspapers boarded her, she was painted a bright, festive yellow that would have made the Beatles proud. The window-lined sub could hold up to 46 tourists, who would pay about $100 each for an hourlong journey, Kottman told the media on that first trip. "It has been a long time coming, and I am very excited," he said. "It's really a little more luxury than what most people think of submarines." After the media blitz that followed the inaugural ride, the Looking Glass never appeared again in the Florida press.
In the Caribbean outside South Florida, submarine companies have taken tourists below for at least 20 years. Atlantis Submarine International, which operates on six Caribbean islands, transports more than 7 million passengers a year. But here, subs have rarely become commercial ventures, says Harold Maynard, a retired firefighter who owns a two-man sub in Marathon. Maynard uses his own sub to search for buried treasure and in recovery operations, but he says shuttling Florida tourists is foolish. "People here are so sue-crazy," he says. "You take people out and they trip over something and they're going to sue you."
But it was an obscure federal law that ruined the Looking Glass' chances of operating in South Florida. The Jones Act, which took effect a century ago, forbids vessels built overseas from operating commercially between U.S. ports. Kottman applied to the Coast Guard for special permission that would have to be approved by Congress. But more than a year passed without a verdict.
So Kottman decided in September 2001 to cut his losses and ship the sub to Cabo San Lucas, in Mexico, where he hoped the more liberal government would allow his sub to sail. Instead, Kottman says, he spent more than a half-million dollars trying to get approval there. "It was a good business plan," Kottman says from Dallas. "But at that point, I was getting very discouraged. Years were passing, and the sub was just sitting at the docks."
Finally, Kottman decided to try his luck again in U.S. waters. He paid $35,000 to a Mexican transport company called Porteadores del Noroeste to bring the Looking Glass and the Mary Margaret, which served as the sub's support ship, to San Diego. Before leaving, Porteadores owner Hector Margain took out a $10 million insurance policy to cover him if he failed to deliver the sub. Capt. Garfias Ramirez left in the Rosarita on April 5, 2002, with the Looking Glass and the Mary Margaret in tow. The sub and the boat supposedly sank at 11:30 the next night; Garfias Ramirez reported it to Mexican authorities when he returned two days later.
Kottman was immediately skeptical of the story. He hired a Mexican investigator, who tracked down the Rosarita's crew. His efforts paid off. One of the crewmen told the investigator that he had promised to support the story of the sinking in exchange for a cut of the insurance money, according to Jenny Goodman, a San Diego attorney hired by Kottman. "We now believe the sub never sank at all," Goodman says. "We believe Mr. Margain kept it for himself."
To prove the theory, Goodman found images taken by U.S. satellites that show the exact location from a half-hour before and a half-hour after the time the sub supposedly sank. Goodman says that, while the images aren't clear enough to see the sub, they do show that the skies were clear and the sea calm -- with no squall in sight.
Kottman sued Margain in San Diego federal court in September 2003 for $4 million, the value of the sub and the Mary Margaret. No trial date has been set. Margain did not return a phone call from New Times to his office in Mexico. But Joseph Mirkovich, his attorney in Long Beach, California, scoffed at Kottman's claims. "If they faked the sinking, then where's the sub?" Mirkovich says. "This is an awful long time to be hiding it. A submarine would certainly be something that is not easy to hide. People are going to talk when they see this sub go by."
Mirkovich says he hasn't seen the satellite images, but he argues that the alleged statement from the Rosarita crewman doesn't add up. The insurance in question would cover Margain's costs if he were to be sued but it would not pay him for the loss of the ship. "There was no insurance money for this crewmember to get," Mirkovich says.
About two weeks after the sinking came the last ironic twist in Kottman's star-crossed relationship with the submarine. That's when Kottman got word from the Coast Guard that his request had been approved by Congress. He could now operate the sub in Florida waters.
"I'm not going to say this was cursed," Kottman says. "But I can see why somebody would say that."
If the sub really did sink off Baja California, there's no way to recover it, Kottman says. The spot where it supposedly went down is above a ravine that's more than 2,700 feet deep. The Looking Glass would have imploded on the way down. Kottman says he's not in a hurry to replace the vessel: "I'm kinda worn out on the submarine industry for right now."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.