In Search of the Mach Turtle

At first glance a trawler doesn't look like anything to get excited about. It's not one of those monolithic, 80-foot-plus motor yachts that ooze and burble down the New River all sleek lines, glistening white hulls, and black-tinted windows. Nor is it a sublime, multimasted sailboat, the kind that appears in these parts sporting an Australian flag and a tan guy polishing the teak in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

Trawlers are more earnest than that. They're a retirement fund instead of a trust fund, years of planning instead of a lucky lotto pick, cigarettes and beer instead of cocaine and champagne. They have huge fuel tanks and economical engines. They're slow but can carry supplies for a month at sea. They're wide, bulky, and purposeful, looking very much like the commercial fishing vessels the word trawler brings to mind.

But these kinds of trawlers are not for fishing. They're for adventurous souls who want to see the world under power instead of sail. And a trawler type can get attached to his vessel, probably more so than the swaggering dandy with the Freudian complex who has the biggest, longest yacht on the water. A trawler owner is likely to be the one who took a bath in diesel fuel the last time he had to change the fuel filter himself at sea. He might have cradled a piston in his hands like a newborn when the engine had to be torn down. Perhaps he even scrubbed the barnacles off the boat when it came out of the water.

So a trawler owner might go a little crazy if his boat got pinched and spirited away to God knows where. He'd spend long nights pining away, a tear rolling down his cheek and onto sun-dappled photos of her at dock, fading light glistening off her ample stern. He'd naturally fear the worst: joyriders who used and abused her, a marine chop shop where she was stripped and then scuttled in the Straits of Florida, a quickie paint job and name change.

This is the story of one such purloined trawler, the Mach Turtle, a 52-foot Durbeck sporting reverse pilothouse windows and a sweet set of flopperstoppers that keeps vomit-inducing rolling under control on the high seas. At one time she was a sturdy, reliable traveling companion that was loved, even coveted, by all who knew her. She had a way of seducing people, making them do stupid things and take ridiculous risks to win her. She was the light of her designer's eye.

Almost five years ago, the Mach Turtle vanished. There were rumors she'd been seen briefly in Fort Lauderdale, that she was in the Keys, even Taiwan. So desperate was the owner to retrieve her that he dispatched a search party to Cuba on little more than a whisper that she was tied up at a Havana marina.

About a week ago, the Mach Turtle reappeared. Where she went, how she got there, and how she got back amount to an illuminating tale about the Fort Lauderdale boating world, where mendacity is as probable as honesty and a deal's never closed until the check clears the bank.

Dave Kellerman pulls a small scrap of paper, folded in half, from his wallet. On it he's crammed a lot of vital information: his passport number, address, family members to call in case of emergency, and the phone number of a Cuban contact listed only as "Hernando."

"In case I get grabbed going through customs," Kellerman says, handing over the paper. "I may be persona non grata down there. Stay ahead of me in line, and if I don't make it through, just start calling."

It's early August, and Kellerman is in the Nassau International Airport, waiting for a flight to Havana, where he plans to steal a boat from under the noses of Cuban authorities. Only now does he reveal that he's been to Cuba before -- to kidnap someone.

Kellerman is a private investigator. He was hired three years ago by a Guatemalan man to snatch the man's young daughter back from his ex-wife, who'd run to Cuba after a judge awarded custody of the child to the father in a bitter divorce. It was a pretty easy job. Kellerman simply hung around a marina in Havana in his boat for a few days, taking it in and out, ostensibly to go fishing. Normally boaters must clear customs every time they leave a marina, but after Kellerman had taken a few trips, customs agents began to wave him through. At that point the father, who was along for the grab, picked up his daughter at school, took her to Kellerman's boat, and away they went.

Cubans are prickly about this sort of thing. The father later returned to Cuba and was questioned about the kidnapping. Kellerman has no idea if his name was mentioned. He was betting that he'd never have to return to Cuba anyway. But here he is, trying to get back in. If he's detained, anyone traveling with him might also be stopped. So this bit of background is not good news. But it is typical Kellerman.

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Bob Whitby