By Cap’n Larry Jarboe
In April of 1980, my wife, Carlene, was a month pregnant with our first child. We decided to take a captain and mate’s holiday from the boats we worked on at the Coral Reef State Park concession for a weekend in the Dry Tortugas. Dan and Cheryl LaCross, our best friends, agreed to join us on a 50 person charter that was organized by the Key Largo Historical Society.
Fort Jefferson is the naval fortress at the end of the Dry Tortugas island chain that has great historical significance to history buffs, especially Southern Marylanders. This is where Dr. Samuel Mudd from Charles County was interred following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The two day weekend charter included round trip to and from Fort Jefferson with a cookout and camping on the boat or island. The seventy mile voyage was only fifty bucks each. We were about the youngest couples booked on a boat full of senior citizens. I only remember one other young married couple with their elementary school age son. The two and a half hour hundred mile trip from Key Largo to the Key West docks on the evening of Friday April 11, 1980 was uneventful. We were anticipating a grand adventure, but were a little concerned with the steady 25 knot wind that had been blowing from the East South East. Our arrival at the party boat, Can’t Miss, operated by Capt. Johnny Blackwell III was after dark, but it was easy to see this was a very old wooden boat. Dan was immediately ready to get his money back and return to Key Largo in his Dodge van with Cheryl, but I convinced him that, despite the worn appearance, this was a U.S. Coast Guard inspected vessel subject to rigorous oversight with a licensed captain who must know the limitations of his vessel. I was wrong. The night trip to the Tortugas was actually very smooth. Though the waves were running a height of 6-8 feet, the following sea nudged the stern of the 70′ displacement hull boat in a gentle fluid motion. Somewhere through the course of the evening all of us got a little sleep on our bedrolls. We would need it later that weekend.
The sun was rising as we docked at the public pier at the Fort Jefferson National monument. This is a remarkable brick fortress which is a Nineteenth Century engineering marvel. The six sided fort nearly completely covers Garden Key. Sixteen million bricks were used to build this huge structure that incongruously rises from the ocean in the middle of nowhere.
Immediately, we set about exploring inside the six walls of the fort. One of my favorite pictures from that day is me standing behind the bars on the door of Dr. Mudd’s cell. Hopefully, that is the only time I will spend behind bars in this lifetime. By lunchtime, as Carlene and Cheryl snacked on food from our cooler, Dan and I grabbed our spinning rods from the foc’sle and found a nice shady ledge under the docks to tempt mangrove snappers with some fresh shrimp. Normally, Mangrove Snappers are extremely wary. Though these fish might have gone to school, they had not been educated. We literally loaded the cooler with one pound to pound and a half snappers. Boy, were we going to have a great cookout that evening with fresh snapper for the grill!
With a cooler full of fish iced down, our crew of four castaways spent the afternoon snorkeling the soft coral reef that is on the lee side of the fort. There were plenty of tropical fish to entertain us along with bigger snappers and an occasional grouper. If not for our jobs in the real world, we were ready to just move on to the island.
When we returned to the boat late that afternoon to prep for the cookout, Capt. Blackwell notified us that the majority of the passengers wanted to go home. Dan said we had paid for a two day trip and were looking forward to the evening on the island. The captain acknowledged but said the majority controlled the charter. I told him that he was going to be beating into small craft warning winds and rising seas. Why not make the crossing in the light of day as scheduled? Capt. Blackwell was determined to depart.
Around 6:30 P.M. that Saturday evening, we left the security of the Fort Jefferson docks for an open water crossing back to Key West. A beautiful day was going to turn into a very memorable night.
By 8:00 P.M., the Can’t Miss was pounding into 7-11 foot seas in the dark of night. We had positioned Cheryl in a center cabin location to try to rest as she was double dosed on Dramamine for her chronic seasickness. Many of the passengers were also feeling the effects of the roiling sea. The heads were full of barf and the acrid smell wafted through the cabin as Carlene and I played cards to pass the time. It was going to be a long night.
Carlene decided to go forward and grab a bunk in the foc’sle to take a snooze. When she looked below, bilge water had risen above the bottom bunks. The steps had broken off and were floating among loose debris in that compartment. A young man in the upper bunk got her attention and she helped him out of his stranded position. I believe he was the elementary school student who I spoke of in the first part of this narrative.
She notified Capt. Blackwell that there was a lot of water below and came back to tell me there about the high water in the bilge.
Capt. Blackwell slowed his boat down from the steady pounding he had maintained. The mate took over the helm and the captain went below deck to the engine room. He then went back to the helm, shut down one engine, grabbed a V-belt, and went back below.
I told Carlene, “That darned fool broke an alternator belt and does not have a crossover to send juice from his other engine to charge batteries. This is one heck of a rotten time to be changing an alternator belt.”
Capt. Blackwell showed my assessment was wrong.
He came from the depths of the engine room to announce to his weary passengers in the center cabin, ?Folks, we have to start bailing!?
“His engine driven bilge pump is seized up.” I told Carlene. “Find a bucket!”
There was no way to bail out the foc’sle as the water level was beyond an arm’s reach. The water was knee deep in the next compartment between the foc’sle and the engine room. Armed with an aluminum cooking pot, I joined at least dozen other passengers and formed a bucket brigade to throw bilge water overboard from this central compartment. These men were mostly senior citizens from the Upper Keys who were now energized and organized to save the ship.
As we were bailing, passing full buckets and pots above, and returning the empty containers below, water washed from the deck above us onto our heads and shoulders.
“Guys, throw the water overboard.” I called from the depths of the bilge.
“Its coming in from overboard!” was the reply from above us.
We quickly scampered up the steps to the stern which was sitting higher in the water.
Lifejackets were found by the passengers as the crew stayed holed up in the bridge. Word was passed back to the customers crowded on the stern that the Coast Guard had been called and a helicopter should arrive any minute with a pump.
Dan swept the decks on both sides of the boat clear by jettisoning coolers, seats, gear, or anything that might impede access from bow to stern. All those nice Mangrove Snappers we had caught earlier became fish food. We could be next.
I climbed atop the cabin to assess the condition of the floating life boat cushions. They were tied down tight in their racks. If the boat went down, they would go down with the boat.
I worked the knots loose on all the safety apparatus. As I made sure each cushion was free in its rack, I flipped up the flashing strobe light setting the light in motion. Ten or fifteen minutes later, about eight strobe lights were flashing from above the cabin.
The Coast Guard helicopter arrived soon after the strobes were set in motion but much later than we had expected. The LORAN coordinates called in by the crew were wrong. The helicopter was ten miles off course searching empty water when they spotted a Christmas display of flashing lights in the distance.
Dan and a senior passenger, I think his name was Fred, caught the Coast Guard enlisted man and pump dangling from a line below the chopper just before he nearly flew over the stern. The poor Coast Guard man was pretty shook up and disoriented, but he had done his job. The seniors grabbed the pump canister and took it to the forepeak at the bow. Like a well oiled machine, the old timers pulled out the pump, assembled it, passed the suction hose into the bilge, and fired the sucker up. As water flowed from the depths of the Can’t Miss overboard, we all cheered.
Dan helped the Coastie to a dry place in the cabin and pulled a tarp over him. The young rescuer was literally sick and tired and done for the night. Another pump was dropped by line in. The same precision team took over. Soon both pumps were humming. The water level started dropping and the bow came up from the sea.
Capt. Blackwell pushed ahead dead into the seven to eleven foot seas toward Key West. With a light shining in the forepeak, we could see that the seams in his bow had opened up from the pounding seas. Each wave pushed in five gallons of water. We were only ten miles out of the safety of Fort Jefferson. I wondered why he did not do a 180 and take the safest course to land.
We manned the pumps all night. At daybreak, Dan and I looked over the starboard side to see a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter escorting us. We were still in open water, hardly halfway home. The men on board were laughing and joking. My buddy, Dan, could not take it anymore.
“Put a man on this boat now or we’re going to mutiny and take this scum bucket back to Fort Jefferson.” yelled Dan.
From the loud speaker, the Coast Guard captain called back, “Those are not proper words from a crew.”
“I’m a passenger; this captain has tried to kill me and everyone aboard this rotten heap. Now, send one of your boys over, NOW!” Dan screamed at the top of his lungs.
Dan and I gave the Coast Guard crew member a tour of the vessel. We roused his fellow crewman from under the tarp. We then turned the vessel over to their care and joined our wives in the cabin.
About two or three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, a very weary group of refugees arrived at the Key West docks on the Can’t Miss.
Capt. Blackwell and his crew who had done nothing to assist their passengers or keep the boat afloat were now quickly trying to send the customers home. All our gear was scattered deep in the foc’sle among the broken bunks and steps. We were not going anywhere without our belongings.
Dan and I eased our bodies over the doorway and dropped into the bilge. We pulled out our dive gear, oily fishing rods, and extra clothes. The sleeping bags were shredded and completely worthless. We passed our stuff up and pulled ourselves back up to the main deck.
As we sorted our soiled belongings on the dock, a local charter captain walked by and complained that we were messing up the docks with our junk. After nearly forty hours with no sleep, I had to hold Dan back from clobbering the guy. We did not need to spend time in a Key West jail for assault.
The Coast Guard pulled Capt. Blackwell’s Certificate of Inspection that day. He was only rated for twenty miles offshore. The seventy mile passage he booked was in extreme violation of the boat’s credentials.
Dan and I testified at the Coast Guard hearing along with other passengers. Capt. Johnny Blackwell III lost his tonnage license. He appealed the decision but he did not get his license back.
However, word drifted up the Keys that Johnny Blackwell III took his non-certificated heap of a boat out of dry dock only a few days after trying to drown fifty people on a Historical Society expedition.
The story is that he made three runs to Cuba in the Mariel Boatlift. Each trip imported 150 Cubans at a thousand bucks a head. The cash money was used to buy a fiberglass version of the Can’t Miss that still operates out of the Key West docks.
Piracy is alive and well today for anyone venturing to Key West, Florida.