Drug Trafficking, Cheers, and Lost Treasure

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Cindy finds a Moray eel showing its sharp teeth. They are night hunters so often not seen during the day. According to Oyster Diving, one of the most dangerous fish in the ocean – they will bite if threatened.

Drug Trafficking

Every time we arrive in a new country, we are required to clear customs and immigration. For the most part, this is a pretty relaxed process and very rarely have customs officials set foot on the boat to inspect. We normally fill out their forms, go to their office and get official papers showing our clearance.

I remember when we first purchased Cream Puff and the vessel’s status required us to leave the USA for a few days and return. This was because we documented (registered) the vessel in the BVI and later the UK. This helped us avoid Florida sales taxes and reset the vessel cruising permit (legal status) in the US. It was very easy to take the vessel out of the US for a few days since at that time the Puffster was kept in Ft. Lauderdale. The closest Bahamian island of Bimini is just 90 km (55 mi) away and is easily reachable in a day. We went there for Thanksgiving.

The point of me telling you this is because I distinctly remember a comment I made to Cindy when we returned to the US. At that time, a private vessel arriving in the USA was required to report themselves to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on a special 800 number. The CBP officer would take information over the phone and then determine if we needed to go to an office or be cleared in by phone. We called them as we were motoring up the New River in Ft. Lauderdale to the location where we kept the boat. We kept Cream Puff at a private dock we rented from a homeowner. CBP told us to call back once the vessel was fully docked. This made me think they’d want to come and look us over.

For both of us, this was a new experience. We had never arrived in any country by private boat. The Bahamas was very easy. There was a customs office in the marina where we parked. The officer was very laid back – island style. Immigration barely looked at our passports. Coming back to the US I thought we’d be inspected. I was wrong.

We arrived at our private dock and secured Cream Puff. Cindy redialed the 800 number and went through the process. At the end of the call, they told us we needed to go to their office with our passports to finalize the check-in. We hopped into our car and drove to the cruise ship terminal to which they had directed us. And proceeded to get lost inside the massive Ft. Lauderdale complex. After we found their building, we were not sure what to expect.

Entering the building is very impersonal. There was a series of glass windows and all but one was closed with dark shades. We approached the open window and Cindy explained she’d talked to the 800 number. The somewhat unfriendly CBP officer took our passports through the tiny slot at the base of the window and disappeared for about 5 minutes. When he arrived back, he didn’t say a word. He just handed us our passports. Cindy asked if there was anything else we needed to do and was told, “nope”.

We exited the building and returned to the car. Along the way I joked, “Now all we have to do is unload the drug shipment from Cream Puff and we can get on the road back to Atlanta”. I was really quite amazed that we had just arrived from another country by private boat, tied the boat at a private dock, and nobody even wanted to look it over. On the trip home, I mused at the idea of starting a whole new career as a drug trafficker. Could entering and exiting the USA really be this easy all the time?

We have all seen in the movies the massive amounts of money a smuggler can make, especially with narcotics. When I was younger, the temptation to make a massive amount of money very quickly had some appeal. Fortunately, the fear of being caught and going to jail offset this. But for some people, the temptation is too much.

I have often wondered if some private cruising boats deal in drugs. In Panama, a boat down the dock from us sold weed. But, this was a small-scale operation and most sales were to boaters. I continued to wonder if anyone took advantage of what appears to be a very lax system with private boats entering countries. And, now I know the answer.

Recently in Tahiti, a boat arrived and drugs were found. And, not just a little bit, like for personal use, a lot of drugs were found. Customs found 423 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a Swedish yacht arriving from Panama. In the newspaper, it stated this is the seventh yacht with large quantities of cocaine intercepted in French Polynesia since 2016.

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From Customs – the secret compartment with drugs stashed

The news stated an intensive search for the drugs. I have to assume the authorities were working from a tip or had some suspicion to conduct such a big search of this particular vessel. The illegal cargo was very cleverly hidden in a stern secret compartment accessible via a magnetic switch and the removal of a mirror on a bulkhead wall. It’s pretty obvious this was not a one-off thing. I would assume the vessel made a stop in Colombia before going on to Panama and being stopped in Tahiti. The Swiss couple aboard claimed their destination was Australia. But, now they’ve had their plans change. They’ll be staying here for a while courtesy of the justice department.

We recently required a visit to the customs office in Tahiti and saw the Swiss vessel still tied at the customs dock. I assume at some point it will be sold at auction. The two people aboard have already been tried and convicted.

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The impounded vessel at the customs dock


Basil and tomato, eggs and bacon, fish and chips, and of course pizza and champagne. What? You’ve never heard of pizza and Champagne? We discovered this many many years ago when vacationing in Hawaii. We were staying at a rather posh hotel and roamed down to the beach one evening. There was a restaurant down there where we thought we might grab a burger. Once there, we found it was closed. But, near the burger hut was a phone with a sign stating room service would deliver to the beach upon request.

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The long uphill walk back to the room or to a restaurant was rather unappealing since we had our minds set on toes-in-the-sand. Cindy decided to use the room service option. But, rather than calling room service, she called the hotel concierge. We had used the concierge for other items during our stay there and discovered they really enjoyed a challenging request, something more than setting up dinner reservations. They helped us hire a plane so we could get a picture of an active volcano – very cool! So once again, Cindy gave them a challenge.

She told them we’d like a pizza from the Italian restaurant down the street and a bottle of Champaign. Also, we had no money or credit cards with us. Our plan was to hang out at the beach until the food and bubbly arrived. The concierge ordered the pizza (this was pre-cell phone days), paid for it, and charged it to our room.

When the pizza arrived, it and the iced champagne were quickly loaded onto a golf cart and driven by the bellboy down to the beach.

We are hanging at the beach when we see a golf cart racing down the hill toward us. We are the only people there and have parked ourselves at one of the tables near the burger hut. The young man pulls up at our table. He lays out a tablecloth, and places the now open bubbly in its ice bucket on the table. He also brought silverware, napkins, and plastic cups. From the passenger seat, he grabs the pizza which he has been holding during the drive down. The pizza is still hot and the bubbly is ice cold. He looks around and says, “This is nice”.

After signing and filling out the tips section of the bill with a very generous gratuity, we sit and enjoy our meal. The bellboy told us to just leave everything when we were done and someone would come and collect it later. This was the day when we discovered how well pizza and champagne (or prosecco) go together.

Since that day, we’ve often had bubbly and pizza. When we do, not a single time passes that I don’t think of that evening in Hawaii on the beach. When you think about it, many people drink soda with pizza. So, if you look at champagne or prosecco as sparkling grape juice, it all kinda makes sense.

We’ve found a great pizza place here in Pape’ete. It’s a takeout/delivery place. They seem to know me quite well. I guess we are foreigners so it makes sense I stand out. I used to go to their pizzeria to order the pizza and sit on the steps while it cooked. Then I thought I’d try to order by phone to avoid the need for hanging out. My French is getting a little bit better. I can now barely order a pizza. But, it doesn’t always go well.

One time I order the pizza and when I arrived to get it, the order was never placed. The guy who answered the phone never understood what I was saying. And, I couldn’t understand him telling me he didn’t understand. Fred is the owner and he speaks fluent English. He was very embarrassed that my order was lost and told me in future I should ask for him and he’ll place my order. He also told his staff, “When Mark calls he either wants a large Helena or Special pizza”. We are creatures of habit. This was about two years ago. At first, I asked for Fred, but now it seems like I no longer need to. Is my French really this good now? Ha. Not at all.

Please understand we are not regular pizza eaters. Perhaps one, at the most two times a month we order pizza from Fred’s place, Croq’n Pizza. So, I’m a little dumbfounded that what I’m about to tell you happened. Fred is always very eager to say hello when I pick up the order. The young lady at the cashier also knows my face; she also speaks a little English. However, the guy that usually answers the phone speaks very little English. Lately, I have been trying hard not to bother Fred, who cooks, and I try to order in French when the guy answers. We struggle through it but we both try really hard. And then, there was last night.

I called Croq’n. I usually begin with, “Je comprends un peu le français (I understand a little French)”. Then, I tell them what I want and my name is Mark. They will then tell me how long it will be before it is cooked and ready to pick up. But yesterday, when the guy answered, I just said, “bonne soirée (good evening)”. He responded with, “Hello Mark”. I laughed hard. He then said, “A large Helena?”. Still laughing, “oui” I replied. Then he told me, “6 o’clock”.

I walk over to Croq’n to pick up the pizza and, as usual, Fred was manning the ovens and the young lady is at the register. They always say hello, call me by name, and fist-bump (that’s a big thing here – everyone fist-bumps). I told Fred about the phone call I just had with the guy who takes the orders. I think he works in the back. Fred laughed and said, “Everyone here knows Mark”. I felt like Norm at Cheers.

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At our favorite swim site, so many fish sometimes make it hard to see where we are going

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I think we are spoiled here when it comes to snorkeling

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I have no idea what these are. If you know, please tell me.

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Moorish Idol fish – always in pairs and hard to get a pic of since they don’t let people get very close

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Saddleback butterflyfish

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A parrotfish doing what they do – eat coral and make sand. Click the picture for more on this

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Is it just me or does this look like the brain of an alien creature with the skull removed from the back of its head?

Lost Treasure

A couple of days ago, I went to take the trash out. The dumpsters are located off the docks in an area near the marina office. This means I have to take a security key with me to open the gate allowing access to and from the piers. The keys resemble the plastic keycards used in hotels.

We have three keys. Two are used by us regularly to open the gate. The third key is to feed the electric and water meter. It is possible to use this third key as a gate key but since it has money on it, we prefer to keep it safely on the boat. We have lost keys in the past. It’d be sad to lose one with money programmed to it. Each month, we take the keys to the office. There, they program the keys with the dates for which we have paid and add any money we might need onto the key.

The dock’s power and water terminal have meters. We use the key to add money to our meter and pay for electricity and water in advance. When the meter runs down, we add more by using the funds on the key. As you can imagine, there might be quite a bit of money on the key since we run air-conditioning and tend to suck quite a bit of juice for those.

So, back to the story. I am taking the trash out. I grab a key and walk down the dock to the gate. At the gate, I swipe the key and get the dreaded triple beep – meaning it’s not working. I look at the key and realize I grabbed the money key (deliberately not programmed for the gate). This is indicated by a black dot we put on the key with a sharpie. I put the trash to one side and mosey back to the boat to get a key programmed to open the gate. Stepping on the boat, I had the key in my right hand. I went to hold onto the rigging with my left hand and while reaching out I bumped my right hand with my left hand and dropped the key. Yep. You guessed it; the key goes over the rail and into the water.

The key has about US$150 remaining on it for funds to feed the meter. I stand on the deck and watch US$150 slowly sink to the bottom. Rats! The water is about 30 feet deep and it is murky since lately, we’ve had a ton of rain. In addition, there is a lot of swell in the marina since ocean waves are coming from the northwest. The same direction as the opening to the harbor. I wonder if the key has gone straight down or is drifting off with the undercurrent.

I had left a bag of trash at the gate and decide to finish taking that to the dumpster first. This time grabbing the correct key, which isn’t hard since the money key is somewhere in the mud under the boat, I take the trash out. I contemplate if it is worth the effort to swim after the money key or just go to the office and get a replacement. I would be out the US$150 on the key. As you can imagine, the miserly part of me won this in-my-head discussion.

I had plans to check something off my to-do list that day but decided an attempt to retrieve the key was warranted since I wanted the $150 back. When I return to the Puffster, I tell Cindy that I’m going under the boat to look for it. We have a hookah aboard. This is basically a 50’ hose with a diving regulator on one end that can be attached to a dive tank. This is ample to get me to the bottom, but I won’t have much hose to move about once there. I start to set up the equipment. Of course, the dive tank is empty.

We are fortunate on the Puffster to have an air compressor to fill dive tanks. This was a nice option Amel added to some boats. We are the second owners of this boat. The first owner had just about every option added before it left the factory. I am grateful he added the compressor since filling dive tanks can be a real hassle. I fire up the compressor. It takes about 10-20 minutes to air up the tank to the max pressure.

When I go under the boat with the hookah, Cindy will stay on deck to keep an eye on things. It’s always a good idea to have someone keep an eye out, just in case. When I learned to dive, I found out that I am an extremely buoyant person. And, I mean buoyant. Much more than most people. I have a very hard time getting under the water. If I ever drown, someone needs to launch a criminal investigation because I float. Even if I breathe out fully, I still float.

Going under the boat to check the prop or zincs is pretty easy since I can pull myself down the side of the boat to get where I want to be. Going to the bottom of the marina turned out to be a lot more difficult. After a couple of attempts, I decided I needed a better plan than just free-swimming down. I managed to get to the bottom but then immediately started to rise up once I leveled off from the head-first descent. I asked Cindy to drop our dinghy anchor off the side of Cream Puff in the area where I saw the key disappear. My plan was to shimmy down the rope and have a look around.

Like I said, “Extremely buoyant”. Even holding onto the dinghy anchor at the bottom and fully exhaled I still start to rise. And believe it or not, I bring the dinghy anchor up with me. Next step in the new plan: We take a piece of chain about 2 meters long and attach this to the dinghy anchor to add weight. Finally, this works and I am able to hold on to the rope to descend to the bottom and stay in a somewhat upright orientation. Another option would be to weight myself with a dive belt and use a BCD. But, this is very unappealing to me since I’ll be under the water solo and sinkable. Or, I guess I could hire a diver. It’d probably cost me US$150 to get my US$150.

At the bottom, the area is brown mud. I am looking for a white keycard. How hard can this be? As it turns out, not hard. I spot the key but it is out of my reach from the anchor rope I am holding onto. I wonder if I can leave the rope and swim toward the key without floating to the surface. But wait, I have a better idea. Believe it or not, I can still pick up the anchor without sinking all the way down and I manage to move it toward the key. Then, I see a nearby rock to hold on to. Eureka! I just save US$150.

Since I’m under the boat, it seems like a good time to check the zincs on the propeller and the rudder. These one-and-a-half-year-old zincs appear to be in very good condition. I turn the blades on the propeller. All works well. The prop could use a good cleaning but I figure it can wait for a month or two before we leave French Polynesia shortly. I can check off checking zinc from my to-do list. The day is not a total loss after all.

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“Found it!”

Still in Tahiti but, not for much longer.



Categories: French Polynesia, Sailing Blog, South Pacific Ocean

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