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Saltwater Cowboy


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Tim McBride had been a man wanted. Tim McBride was a wanted man. From 1979 to 1989, he smuggled cannabis into the waters off southwest Florida and the Caribbean. He did this with a group of modern-day Pirates called the Saltwater Cowboys. They operated out of Everglades City or Chokoloskee Island. The majority of marijuana imported from Colombia in those days was transported by air, with the rest being shipped by sea. Saltwater Cowboys unloaded as much as 20 tons per night from vessels that were making the trip to South America. It was all done in darkness. Sometimes, however, the Coast Guard became aware and smugglers had to out-maneuver interdiction ships like Blue Thunder through the maze-like 230-square mile mangrove forest of the Ten Thousand Islands.

Times were good­—until it all came crashing down. McBride recalls in the passage below his time working as the director of operations. After returning from Colombia to meet a supplier, he was asked to discuss a huge shipment of marijuana bound for U.S. soil. McBride would have to put everything he’d learned to the test to keep from getting caught after that meeting. But time wasn’t on his side: The DEA, Customs, U.S. He was being pursued by the Marshals as well as state and local law enforcers.

When I arrived in the States, I began to make preparations immediately. I met my friend Johnny in Everglades City. His job was to gather up the shore team and discuss what had to be done. We sent a shrimp boat from Colombia to Colombia with the bales bearing my subtle but distinct mark. From there, the boat would make an eight- to 10-day journey north through the gap between the Yucatán Peninsula and Cuba, then continue on northeast, toward the southern tip of Florida. The captain would contact me when he got close, and we’d meet at a predetermined spot just 30 miles off our coast.

Then I did what I was best at: I sent two crab boats accompanied by my chase boat to unload the bales. Unloading a ship wasn’t always as simple as pulling alongside and waiting for the load to automatically pour down onto our decks. The majority of the time my guys would climb up into the mothership’s bowels to help its crew hoist the bales on deck before off-loading could begin. As we moved the weed, we took turns working below in the heat from the engines that were still running. As if we were a bucket brigade passing bales from a man standing atop a pile of pot to the guys on deck so they could grab them. We would unload the shrimp boat off-shore because its size would make it suspicious to have it any closer to coast. My crab boats are smaller, so their daily routine of going into the Gulf then returning to land would not attract any attention.

The plan was to have my crew and myself transfer the two loads on smaller, faster vessels, which are usually mullet-skiffs, when we reached the shore. A mullet-skiff, or small net boat, is used to catch baitfish. These skiffs can travel fast in shallow water. T-Crafts and Morgans with rear or center consoles would also be mixed in. The smaller, faster boats were equipped with twin Evinrude 235-hp motors capable of taking the sleek vessels from zero-60 in seconds. We used anywhere from 10 to 15 boats. Each made as many trips as needed back and forth to the island until the off-load was completed and the load was stashed safely in someone’s house on the island. Imagine a home with every room filled from floor to ceiling by bales.

The next day, our load would be transported across the causeway, to Everglades City. From there, US 41, or the old Tamiami Trail that stretches from Naples all the way to Miami, becomes the only route out of the town.

This is the way things should have worked. This time it didn’t.

Based on what I heard over the radio from our spotters crouched in the bushes along the roadways, there was an unusually high number of sheriff’s deputies and what appeared to be unmarked police vehicles out across the causeway. These guys were roaming the area between Everglades City & Chokoloskee Island. I was hesitant about bringing our shipment to the designated house. It wasn’t uncommon for the sheriff to pick a night to let us all know that he was still around. We would sometimes find ourselves in a conflict with the sheriff due to the law of averages. For a while, we needed to keep our heads down. But we couldn’t just leave the bales on our boats, waiting for the Coast Guard like sitting ducks. We decided together to move them to an island known only by a handful of people. We’d stack the bales into large blocks and then try to move them the following night. The place I was picturing was located about three miles to the south of Chokoloskee. It is hidden in a dense mangrove jungle within the Ten Thousand Islands maze.

We waded through the forest with 20 members of my crew when I arrived. We did not use shovels like our pirate predecessors. Instead, we started breaking down branches and dead trees. The area was wet and there was no place to dry the ground. Together, we constructed eight platforms for the bales. We formed a row from the boat to the platform, and then passed bales to each other. They were stacked about 50 per platform. The physical effort was difficult, made more so by the fact that every boat had to go out and return twice. Many of us were up to their waists in mud and water. Mosquitoes were eating our flesh.

Six hours later, with the sun about to rise, we’d finished. We were exhausted. I headed back to my home to get cleaned up, rested and prepared for the next night’s work in just a dozen hours.

I was worried about the suspicious traffic that night. I concluded that we still couldn’t bring the bales to the stash house. It was risky. We devised a different strategy. It was decided that we’d use pitpans, shallow-drafting watercraft similar to johnboats, about 16 feet long and seven feet wide. Pitpans can float on as little as 12″ of water when loaded with bales. This type of boat was especially useful because our plan was to carry the bales along the Turner River and through the shallow mangrove backwaters. The river would be followed until we reached the point where it crosses US 41. Bypassing Chokoloskee Island, and Everglades City completely, we would reach this spot. From there, the bales will be loaded onto three big box trucks and then delivered directly to Carlito and Leo. I would, as agreed, keep a few pieces in reserve for our payment. Those would be loaded into vans equipped with air bag suspension and taken 30 miles away to a close friend’s house in the Golden Gate Estates a few miles east of Naples.

We returned to the forest that night in a fleet consisting of over a dozen pitpans. We formed our lines again to each platform, and we passed our treasure from man to person.

We snaked along the backwaters until we reached the mouth of river. One of the many spotters who were hiding along the route, broke the radio silence.

“There’s a party of fishermen camping on Rabbit Key.”

Rabbit Key, one of those small outer islands, was the island we had pass to get to the pass. Everyone in the area would have heard a fleet power boats pass by in the middle night. We couldn’t afford to draw that kind of attention. These inconvenient campers left us with no choice: we’d have had to shut down our engines and paddle the boats, all 18 of them, single file past those fishermen.

As we drifted past them, they were less than 50 yards from us. Remember that we had to transport 27,000 pounds without engines through a maze-like island system in the darkness of the night, all without being heard or seen. We could hear campers having fun and laughing. In the light of their campfire, we could see them.

The same campfire also made it difficult for them to see in the dark. They never knew about the multi-million dollar flotilla passing by them, a stone’s throw away. A breeze from the onshore blew our way. It sent the smell of all that pot into the forest and not into the campers’ faces. 27 000 pounds of pot emits a powerful and thick odor, with a distinct hint of burlap. It’s not like you’re carrying a dime bag in your pocket, if you know what I mean.

After we passed the campers and restarted the motors, we continued our journey to the mouth the Turner River. Our caravan of boats was on time as we waded through the dense mangrove forest, sometimes pushing ourselves forward with paddles. The upper part of river, near the highway, was a very shallow area. I had planned my expedition to coincide the high tide. We were then able to push through our boats.

After seven hours of travel, all pitpans arrived at the trucks, which were parked along a stretch of US 41. There, the loading began right away. It took 40 minutes for the first truck to be filled and sent off. The second truck took less time. We were finding our rhythm. The driver of the last and third truck stopped his engine, backed up into position and jumped out. About 20 minutes after we started loading the truck, a vehicle pulled up at the end bridge over the river next to us. My heart rate accelerated, and I think I might have even peed my pants a little—I’m not sure.

“Shit,” I said to Johnny. “Who the hell could that be?”

I had men on duty at 10-mile-apart intervals from New York to Miami. They were looking for any type of law enforcement. They would have contacted over the radio, if there was a cop heading our direction. But this guy wasn’t driving anything marked. He drove past all of my spotters, only to stop next to me. We immediately stopped the loading and started to prepare for hauling asses out. This guy wasn’t alone either. When he opened the car door, I was able to see another person illuminated by his dome light. Seeing that it was a woman, I knew that this guy wasn’t a cop because there were basically no female officers in our neck of the woods in those days. Our boat was lined up along the riverbank at least 30 yards away, our truck was backed to the river, hidden behind some trees and bushes. So unless he could see in the dark and knew right where to look, he wouldn’t know we were there. Everyone just stayed quiet and alert, waiting for the guy’s next move.

He got out of his vehicle and walked to the other side of our bridge. He took a look up and down the highway, unzipped his fly, and pissed over the guardrail. The Everglades road is a fucking mess, and he chose to stop here, just a couple of feet from a truckload Colombian pot. He urinated, zipped himself up, and then hopped back in his car. The couple was on their way. Even though we had experienced close calls before, we felt a little more at ease once the couple was several miles from us. I guessed that they had been visiting a nearby person, otherwise my guys would surely have raised their voices. After that, we loaded the truck. Finally, the hard part was done. We transported the cargo from Colombia to Florida. We only had to drive the trucks across the ocean to receive payment.

From Saltwater Cowboy by Tim McBride and Ralph Berrier Jr. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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