Chase, Catch, and Cuff Page 3

Chase, Catch, and Cuff — U.S. Customs
Chase, Catch, and Cuff

Part 3: Smuggler Takedown, Custom Modifications for the U.S. Customs

By Capt. Patrick Sciacca — June 2001


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At a predetermined rendezvous point, an unmarked undercover Customs boat rafted up to a smugglers' vessel. Receiving the signal for the take-down, Stellhorn and other U.S. Customs' boats and aircraft rushed in, but the smugglers--still tied to the undercover boat--tried to run. When they hit the throttles, the two boats spun in a circle. Diving from his boat to the smugglers' boat to stop the drug runners from making a bad situation worse, Stellhorn slipped on some fuel that had leaked during the fray, dislocating his shoulder. Nevertheless, the bad guys did not escape.

One Customs-specific modification not available to pleasureboaters is the bimini top, which supports the 100-pound Furuno. It's supported by six legs of two-inch piping instead of four, the better to also support an array of lights, sirens, and antennas. Stellhorn says the new bimini also gives him more protection from the elements. After all, this isn't a sunny-day-only gig. He says there's only one drawback to the top: On hard turns you can briefly lose sight of the boat you're chasing.

Supporting the structure is a stiff hull. The bottom is solid 3/4-inch-thick, hand-laid glass. (No wonder they can run bad guys aground.) Nidacore is used in the deck, hull sides, and stringers for maximum strength with minimal weight. In fact, the Customs 39 Midnight Express comes in at just 14,000 pounds with 400 gallons of fuel, which I'm told is more than enough for those Bahama runs. But Mason says early 39s didn't have enough room to hold the engine oil required for such trips, so these boats have an extra stowage space for oil under the aft benchseat. That seat is for arrestees, so it has the same Simpson racing harnesses as the helm, which has two bolster seats.

One neat idea for a helm station upgrade came from Manheimer, according to Mason. When the outboards occasionally shut down at idle, the officers said that finding the right start switch under the wheel was hard. All start switches are now dash-mounted and easily accessible. Other helm features include Kiekhaefer racing throttles and shifters, an Icom IC-M127 VHF, Northstar 952x GPS, Furuno 64-mile radar, and Motorola 900-mHz encrypted Customs radio. Since a three-man crew is standard, there's a V-berth forward for extended patrols, and spare propellers are mounted here as well.

After our running shots, Raycroft and I made a quick landing and jumped into Stellhorn's boat with Mann, who gave us a brief demonstration of the 39's performance. On flat water she was a bullet, and she cut through wakes like a hot knife though butter. I held onto the bimini and stuck my head out like a dog hanging out of a car window while we cruised along around 45 mph and Manheimer kept pace in his boat.

Later we headed up the Miami River, and I caught a glimpse of what the Customs service faces. Lined up for a good stretch were rickety freighters well past their prime, overloaded with bicycles, mattresses, and whatever could be lashed down. Mann told me they were headed to Haiti. "They do this run every week," he says, and confided that these OSVs (Offshore Supply Vessels) sometimes also transport cash out of the United States and drugs into the country. Even the haphazardly stored bicycles and mattresses are often stolen. A stop of one such freighter last year netted $1.6 million in drug money, Mann told me.

This isn't pretty, but it's what Stellhorn, Manheimer, Mann, and every other U.S. Customs officer deals with every day. However, with high-quality reconnaissance, superb boat-handling skills, and durable, fast boats like the 39 Midnight Express, U.S. Customs is on the case. And you can help. If you suspect someone may be smuggling drugs by boat, contact the U.S. Customs at (800) BE ALERT.

Previous page > U.S. Customs, Part 2 > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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