Rejection without apology is always hard. Having arrived sunburned and weary after hitchhiking to Panama City from Nogales Mexcio the refusal of the US Embassy to renew my visa was a major blow. It was 1975 and my intention was to return to Wyoming where I was scheduled to be the star witness in a major trial. US immigration officials didn’t give a damn, even though I showed them the letter given me by the Jackson Hole County Prosecutor. They asked me how much money I had and then told me my two hundred and twenty bucks was not enough. Extremely shocked, I explained that friends, back in Tucson, had offered to support me but I still got shown the door.
I’d travelled around Europe quite a bit and made two visits to Israel prior to this trip but never had any issues with visas. My passport was covered with stamps verifying I had entered and left countries in full compliance with their laws. This rejection by US immigration was my first, but not my last, serious entanglement with border officials and I had to figure out what to do next.
Without sufficient funds to buy a plane ticket back to London I felt hopelessly stranded until I heard about a boat soon to be sailing to the Caribbean. The Jylland was a 120’ long three masted Baltic schooner, built in Denmark in 1914 to transport fish from Newfoundland. Four brothers from the East end of London had bought her in 1969 for £5,200 and she was mostly crewed by a bunch of British blokes seeking their fortunes on the high seas.
I caught a bus to their camp in Portobello and found them in the process of packing up after a six month marine archeological dive looking for Buccaneer Sir Francis Drakes coffin. The Capt’n was a hulking six feet four Marlboro Man, born in Yorkshire, England called Mike Atkinson and he invited me to help his crew pack up and make the boat shipshape for their return voyage to their homeport in St.Lucia.
I spent a wild couple of weeks, bouncing around in inflatables, moving gear to the boat at anchor, coiling lines and swabbing the decks under Capt’n Mike’s direction. I quickly adapted to the lifestyle and enjoyed being on the water and hanging out with salty sailors. One day I decided to test my latent elementary swimming skills returning from the schooner to the shore across the open bay. It was scary and slow but I felt fairly safe until a monstrous pelican swept down to check out my bobbing bare head. Luckily, the modern dinosaur recognized that I wasn’t good for dinner and skimmed right over me, barely a foot away, to scoop up a more tasty morsel.
Unexpectedly, early one morning, Capt’n Mike announced we would depart that evening. We raced around all day making final preparations then hauled in the heavy, seaweed laden, anchor after dusk, pulled up a few sails and slipped away quietly under cover of darkness. I learned later that I was on board with a bunch of modern day pirates. As the last crewmember to join, Mike assigned me to the fo’c’s’le which is way forward of the foremast and the least desirable sailors quarters. I didn’t complain since this was my only option to get out of Panama and I was thrilled to be on my first ever sailing adventure.
It started well with fair winds and we dropped anchor off of the pristine islands of San Blas. A few Cuna Indians paddled up to our vessel in dug out canoes to trade fish and fabrics. I was so entranced with these native people that I swore to return one day, and ten years later I made it. I was not so entranced by the first storm I encountered on my second night at sea. My forward bunk turned into a sea water shower and my stomach starting rising. As water slopped around the floor and the boat bucked and rolled I passed buckets of foam and vomit up through a hatch to a crewmate to toss overboard. It was a cruel initiation to blue water sailing but jumping off the schooner was not an option.
Our next stop was the Colombian Port of Cartagena with it’s imposing castle walls and bustling commercial harbor. One night Capt’n Mike led the eager crew to the red light district while I stayed guarding the schooner. They returned in the early hours with a bevy of Colombian beauties and the party continued till the wee hours. As the girls departed the next morning Capt’n Mike had serious trouble getting his own guest to leave, apparently she wanted to stowaway and leave with the pirates. Mike had other ideas.
From Cartagena we sailed five days due north for Jamaica. Another storm hit us hard one night splintering our topmast in half and bringing down a mess of rigging. Quite bedraggled we crept into the port of Kingston looking like the pirate ship we were. Jamaican customs immediately directed us over to where they parked confiscated cocaine smuggling power boats. A team of commandos came aboard armed to the teeth with automatic rifles and hand guns – all courtesy of the US government. As they did their search Capt’n Mike escorted them around the decks and cabins and I noticed his own pistol sticking out from the butt of his pants. It didn’t seem like a smart place to be concealing a weapon but luckily the Jamaican swat team missed it.
They found nothing but a large quantity of white powder and a crude litmus test suggested it was cocaine so they put us under boat arrest with armed guards. Later that night a police inspector and his team came aboard to interrogate us individually. His goal was to break us down to get confessions about some big drug deal but we had nothing for him. His crude methods were so pathetic and it was hard to keep a straight face. After 24 hours all they got was evidence that the powder was marine caulk used to seal the planks of Jylland’s old wooden hull. We all had a good laugh and they released us without realizing we were actually smuggling marine archeological treasures out of Panama. In a week we replaced our topmast, fixed our rigging, got hooked on reggae music and played soccer against the port police team.
It was then time to set sail again. Old wooden hulled schooners don’t go well to windward and our voyage back to St. Lucia continued slowly with stops in Haiti, Puerto Rico, St.Croix and then Dominica. Each port was another adventure finding fuel, food and fun for the crew. Really soon after docking in Castries, I found a job teaching at Tapion, a private elementary school, and the Jylland resumed it’s rumrunner charter business taking daytrippers down the west coast to Soufrierre.
I stayed friends with Mike and crew and continued to enjoy visiting the ancient schooner from time to time until it’s untimely demise – shipwrecked on a Union Island reef in 1980. Without a boat Capt’n Mike started flying for kicks and later got a job working for St. Lucia Airways. This notorious business originally operated tourists flights to Martinique and Barbados, then expanded throughout the Caribbean and to Central America. After buying two Boeing 707’s, as a mostly unregulated small island business, they were hired by Colonel Oliver North to run illicit freight for the Central Intelligence Agency of the US government.
Capt’n Mike got himself directly involved in the Iran-Contra scandal that toppled Reagan’s government. He flew Hawk antiaircraft missiles to Israel for transfer to Iran, transported weapons to supply Reagan’s contras in Honduras and later supplied arms and supplies to the US backed rebels in Angola. Although he was supporting the U.S. government’s covert operations Mike had little interest in the ideology or fighting the communists. What he lived for was adventure, on the sea or in the air. He also had thoughts of making easy money to provide for his two sons and his wife, then pregnant with a third child.
Mike was the captain of a plane flying a super-secret C.I.A. mission to supply a rebel army from Zaire when it crashed approaching the secret Jamba airport on the night of 27th November 1989. The US military immediately flew in to remove all evidence and the nine unnamed crews bodies were taken away without death certificates or due process.
Mike’s steel casket was returned to St.Lucia. There, at his widow’s request, holes were drilled in it and iron weights were attached so that he could be buried offshore in the Caribbean sea that he loved. According to a witness, “a small flotilla of fishing boats escorted the coffin three miles out of Rodney Bay, the swells were high but the mourners thought it only fitting that on such a day they would bury a man unfazed by rough weather.” Mike was a true renegade!
For more about Mike and the C.I.A. check out: https://ipisresearch.be/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Hercules_v004.pdf
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