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Yacht Rescue in Panama

A Queen’s Ransom

During the early ’90s, Colón, Panama, was a veritable den of cutthroats and thieves. Could a small band of Americans fly down there and liberate a brand-new 72-foot battlewagon—the Flagship of the Bertram fleet—from the decks of a mutinous freighter?

Pierre Pierce knew Colón was a hellhole, based on a couple of rough-and-tumble adventures he’d had down there in his wild and woolly past. And from what Bertram Yacht’s engineering guru Lee Dana was saying on the phone, the company’s newly launched 72-footer was being held hostage at the very heart of the violent old city’s sleazy darkness.

“Okay, Lee,” Pierre said, his mind already awash with schemes. “We’ll see you at your office in about 20 minutes.”

It was early 1991, a high-rollin’ year for Bertram. And Pierre and his wife, Anita, were top-tier players in the big-league sportfishing game. As Bertram’s factory captain, Pierre ran all the new company boats in all the big tournaments, and Anita, no mean boathandler herself, was ever the trusty sidekick. Whether they were working the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout or entertaining sports celebrities and political bigwigs onboard, the charismatic guy with the graying goatee and his spunky wife were seemingly always admired and wholly inseparable. “Where I go,” Pierre would often say, “Anita goes too.”

The 72 was pretty special as well. Introduced to the marketplace only a few months prior, she was the biggest battlewagon Bertram had ever built. And she had an arsenal of top-shelf features that no vessel of her type had ever had before—stuff like a set of huge 12-cylinder MTU diesels; chilled-water air-conditioning; a weight-reducing, speed-enhancing, balsa-cored hull; and a powerful, no-nonsense hydraulic bow thruster. Her very existence, lots of people said, lent gravitas to the most memorable advertising tagline of the day: The Sun Never Sets on the Bertram Empire.

The Mother of All Battles

After the rescue, the 72 makes her way north from Panama onboard the Sea Beach
After the rescue, the 72 makes her way north from Panama onboard the Sea Beach.

Dana’s office was abuzz when Pierre and Anita got there. Dana explained that the Trident Eagle, the ship carrying the new 72 to her Asian owner, was now under arrest in Colón for nonpayment of stevedore fees related to an earlier stop in Mobile, Alabama. More to the point, she was locked down in Cristobal anchorage, with no chance of a canal transit any time soon. Not only did this unforeseen development threaten Bertram’s reputation for service, it portended a big financial problem. The 72’s delivery was performance-bonded—if she didn’t make it to Long Beach, California, in time for a scheduled shipment across the Pacific on the decks of another, already designated ship, her owner would demand many thousands of dollars.

And another issue threatened. By all reports, the Trident Eagle’s crew was growing restive, in part because they hadn’t been paid in months. The ship’s owners were in financial trouble, it seemed, perhaps because they were muddled up in Iraq, which was then teetering on the brink of what Saddam Hussein would soon call “the mother of all battles.” Additionally, the ship was registered in the Iraqi seaport of Basra. It was probable that at least some of her crewmembers harbored anti-American sentiments.

George Dorst
“Ordnance man” George Dorst, also onboard the Sea Beach.

“So,” concluded Dana with an ironic smile, “you guys wanna go to Colón?”

“We’d love to,” Pierre replied.

Almost immediately preliminaries began taking shape. Lightweight custom slings were fabricated, along with shackles, spreader bars, and other odds and sods needed to liberate the 72 from the foredeck of the Trident Eagle. Then all of it was loaded into a shipping container and sent to a warehouse in Colón. In the meantime, Pierre began assembling a team that would fly to Panama, effect the fastest possible rescue, and then either put the 72 and her steel cradle on another ship or take her to Long Beach on her own bottom.

Beautiful Downtown Colón

It was a small but diverse group that gathered at the VIP Lounge on Front Street, downtown Colón, the morning of February 23, 1991. In addition to Pierre and Anita, there was Pete Tyson, a suave, internationally known insurance expert from Richard Bertram & Co.’s offices in Miami; John Bamber, a highly connected Colón-based shipping agent with offices nearby; and “Dirty George” Dorste, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran who Pierre called his “ordnance man.” 

“Shall we go then?” suggested Bamber in a pleasant British accent while patting a pants leg to ensure his Walther PPK semi-automatic pistol was snuggly secured in its holster. “The tug arrives soon.”

Bodyguards in plain clothes were waiting in the street outside. Few of Colón’s neighborhoods were considered safe at the time. In fact, one nearby slum was subject to such extremes of drug-related violence that it was popularly known as “Little Vietnam.” Under a low, leaden sky the little party rumbled along in a van. Raucous music blared from open doorways despite the early hour.

“The captain is Pakistani,” Bamber noted. “British trained, I should say. We’ll see what happens.”

Pakistani Hospitality

Anita and Pierre after the rescue
Anita and Pierre after the rescue.

The little tug held station beneath a ratty, old gangway hanging near the Trident Eagle’s stern. An officer, seemingly the chief engineer, greeted Pierre and his friends after they’d made the climb and then led them into the ship’s superstructure and up a dark stairwell to the captain’s quarters. It was hot and airless inside. A silent TV set flickered in a corner. The captain spoke in well-phrased English.

The crew, he explained, had gone ashore. Most likely they would be back soon, so there was little time to talk. The 72 could not be moved at present. Stability under prevailing sea conditions in the anchorage was iffy. Also, the on-deck crane necessary to do the job was not functional due to a burned-out component. And most critically, the crew was adamant about maintaining possession of the 72. “They see it as leverage—to get their wages,” the captain said.

Pierre nodded understandingly, then lost focus for a moment. Unbeknownst to his interlocutor, a CNN banner headline was just then flashing across the TV’s screen, complete with militaristic imagery: “Ground War Starts In Iraq!” To preserve the captain’s seeming equanimity, at least for the time being, Pierre aimed a subtle, split-second thumbs-down gesture at Anita and nodded toward the TV. She sidled over and discreetly shut the thing off just as a crewmember’s voice crackled over the radio.

“They are coming back,” said the captain, “You must leave.”

Pierre and his team climbed down the Trident Eagle’s starboard side while the crew came aboard to port. 

Some Sneaky Preparations

Several days passed. Always the optimist, Bamber petitioned the Maritime Court of Panama for an official release of the 72. The ship was under arrest, not the boat, he argued. The court agreed but unfortunately failed to proffer a timely resolution of the matter. During the same period, Dorste boosted the size of his mini-militia, adding several ex-military types with AK-47s. And Pierre, after he and Tyson had gathered a little intelligence from the street, determined that the Trident Eagle’s captain had secretly scheduled a visit from Colón’s one-and-only lightering barge. Word was the ship’s fuel was running low—without more her generators and systems would soon shut down.

“How much money would it cost to have the lightering barge fail mechanically?” Pierre asked a Panamanian official. The gent smiled with conspiratorial recognition, and quoted a workable figure. 

The idea was simple, really. Pierre figured that once word got around that the lightering barge was ‘disabled,’ the captain would have no choice but to bring the Trident Eagle alongside the fuel dock, thereby nixing the iffy-stability issue that prevailed in the anchorage and also exposing the ship’s outboard side to a touch-and-go rendezvous with one of the big motorized crane barges available for charter around the harbor. Using the crane barge to hoist the 72 free of the Trident Eagle after that would be relatively easy.

The Panama Caper

Eventually, showtime came. Early one morning, an hour or so before sunrise, the Trident Eagle indeed pulled her hook and ghosted toward the fuel dock. But something other than a short but sweet bunkering operation awaited her there. As the last of her hawsers was secured and the gangway lowered, a platoon of men armed with AK-47s emerged from the shadows, some to remain on the dock, others to ascend the gangway.

In short order, everything was cool. A crane barge came stealthily in and, with the help of a small tug, securely affixed herself to the ship’s outboard side. Then a 250-foot roll-on/roll-off-type landing craft—the Sea Beach—arrived on the scene as well.

The exercise that followed went so smoothly it surprised even Pierre. First, the crane barge (with a gang of rented roustabouts onboard) swung the 72 off the Trident Eagle’s foredeck and into the waters of Manzanillo Bay where a couple of outboard-powered runabouts kept her temporarily safe. Then the 72’s cradle was lifted off the Trident Eagle as well and loaded aboard the Sea Beach. Then finally, about midmorning, the 72 herself was hoisted gently from the bay and lowered into the cradle, now securely fastened to the bottom of the Sea Beach’s hold.

Epilogue

With only hours to spare, the Sea Beach made her appointment with the big, beautiful ship in Long Beach. After a run from Panama that had entailed stops in several ports and taken nearly a month, she quietly pulled into the harbor and immediately offered up the Bertram 72 for a timely transshipment.

While the rest of his American contingent had departed Panama at the end of the Sea Beach’s canal transit (Anita included for once, due to pressing matters back in Florida), Pierre and George had remained onboard for the journey north to California, although they’d decided to bail off a tad prematurely in Ensenada, Mexico, and drive the rest of the way. Flakey air-conditioning had been the main reason, although an infestation of roaches had figured into the equation too, along with food-prep issues that put George on a strict, peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich diet for 19 days straight.

“George!” yelled Pierre, as his “ordnance man” swerved across six lanes of traffic in their rented Cadillac. They were just an hour or so north of the border and intent on getting to Long Beach in time to give the 72 a well-supervised send-off. The climate-controlled frostiness inside the Caddy was so intense Pierre swore he could see his breath. “What are you DOING?”

“McDonald’s,” George hollered, as tires squealed and horns blared behind them. “Just saw a McDonald’s!”

“Holy cripes,” Pierre hollered back, “Be careful, man—you almost got us killed!”

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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