Capt. Brian Conner was at the helm between Florida and Bimini when a charterer informed him there were “guests” onboard. Uninvited and illegal stowaways had hidden in a closet during the night. That Sunday in mid-September was when Conner’s regular charter on a 45-foot power catamaran became his most frightening.
The trip began the morning before at a dock in Miami. Since the guests were late, Conner chatted with “Bob”, a marine unit police officer on patrol. (His name has been changed due to the pending investigation.)
“We talked about my guests going to the Bahamas just for an overnight,” he said.
It seemed odd, he told the officer, but they had chartered with the company before so they must know what they are doing. The trip across the Gulf Stream was uneventful. They cleared Bahamian customs and paid for their permit at the police station.
“Everything was ordinary,” Conner said.
At the end of the evening, with the guests on board, Connor locked up and retired to his cabin. He tossed the lines for Miami just after sunrise the next morning.
The yacht was about 25 miles offshore Bimini when one of the guests told Connor there were additional guests.
“This is not good,” Conner remembered thinking.
The charterer offered him money to “be cool” and let them off at a Miami fuel dock before proceeding to customs as usual.
“She asked me, ‘How are we going to take care of this?’,” Conner said. “I told her to give me time to think about it. She was watching my reaction.”
Though he was shocked — nothing like this had ever happened to him in his eight-year career — he stayed calm and played along.
“I’m not sure if it was an Oscar-rated performance, but it was a life-saving performance,” he said. “It had to be. I don’t want to be the guy with a knife in my back.”
All he could think about was the 2007 hijacking of the charter boat S/F Joe Cool, and the murder of all four of the crew.
“I was planning to radio for help when I realized, dammit, the radio is on down below,” he said.
He couldn’t use his cell phone in international waters, so he just stalled as long as he could. The guest dozed off long enough for him to type a quick text message to the charter company, but he’d have to wait to get a strong enough signal to send.
“I finally had two bars at the lighthouse near Miami and sent the text,” he said.
The text explained three additional guests with foreign passports, not legal to enter the United States, were onboard. And he requested officers meet at the fuel dock.
“I was nervous, waiting for someone to come help,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Waiting for a reply text seemed to take forever. He slowed the boat as much as he could without raising suspicion.
Finally, the charter company called to let him know authorities had been called. Conner pretended to talk about going to a movie. He told the guests to pack up as they were arriving, and he closed the door.
Then a boat pulled alongside, and Conner recognized the captain. It was Officer Bob.
“I was almost in tears to see him,” Conner said.
About eight more law enforcement boats arrived and took the charterers and stowaways into custody. Conner and the boat were escorted to safety.
“He’s lucky he didn’t end up with a bullet in the back of his head,” said Capt. John Wampler, who often delivers yachts solo. If he had been in that situation, he thought he might have pulled an EPIRB alert as well.
“It doesn’t make noise or sound and then I would let the Coast Guard come find me,” Wampler said. “I would just lope along until help arrived.”
Capt. Donald Hannon, a friend of Conner’s, said he was proud how Conner handled it.
“That was smart what he did,” Hannon said. “Texting took care of the issue and made him clear of any wrongdoing. Brian could have ended up in jail.”
Conner’s conversation with Officer Bob turned out to be the key to his rescue. Initially, authorities were told the boat was a 45-foot cat, so they were looking for a sailing catamaran. Officer Bob heard the call on the secured channel, thought it might be Conner and redirected the search. He had seen Conner’s boat during their meeting the day before and was the first to spot it.
Safety and security should be the top priorities in a stowaway scenario, said Petty Officer Mark Barney of the U.S. Coast Guard Seventh District in Miami.
“You don’t know who they are and you don’t know their intentions,” Barney said. “If you come across stowaway in U.S. waters, that is the U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction. If people embark on land in the U.S. then U.S. Customs and Border Protection handles it. If this happens near the Bahamas, we could request assistance.”
To get to the right authorities quickly, it is important to know the USCG is divided into numerous districts, each with its own phone numbers.
“Best thing for crew is to talk about what to do, if, say a deckhand is doing his duties and stumbles on a stowaway,” Barney said. “Keep a list of the numbers that correlate with the district map for each of your trips.
“It’s always better to have plan before you’re in a situation, before you are by yourself in open water,” Barney said. “It’s not like calling 911 and a squad car comes in 10 minutes. You’re <ital>alone</ital> in open water.”
The lesson Conner learned is to make friends with the uniformed officers who work to protect mariners.
“Get to know the guys that keep you safe; they are not just checking for safety gear,” Conner said. “When you do see police, coast guard, customs, be cordial and grab a business card. Remind them, ‘We met here and this is what I need.’ You never know when you may need to send a private text.”
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.