Gularte and I struggled in attempting to do anything but hang on to the sturdy, but very slippery chrome railing. There was nothing else to hold onto as the boat was being continuously beaten all along the port side of its hull by the pounding surf.
“Down,” I yelled up at Gularte, who was somehow remaining on his feet, but unable to maneuver at all without being thrown overboard or onto other parts of the yacht’s equipment strewn and sharp-edged deck.
Gularte went down on his knees, grabbing to hold fast to the same vertical stanchion I was clutching tightly. I looked toward the stern of the boat, to see that the propellers hadn’t ground to a stop from being plunged down into the sand. The boat was angled outward, with the bow up on the sand but the stern was still in deep enough water to allow the propellers enough depth to keep on rotating. The wind continued to blow, seemingly with more strength than when Gularte and I’d been cruising gently along the sand in the Bronco, oblivious to the approaching boat and the tumult about to go on all around us.
I looked back to where the Bronco sat, just as one of the lifeguard jeeps appeared, racing and then hard braking to set its body right next to that of our vehicle, a maneuver that might only be otherwise accomplished by a stunt driver on a movie set. Bob Elwell jumped from the Jeep and raced down to where the boat rocked madly as it bounced up and down, as if trying to free itself from the clutches of some cloying monster’s grasp.
In seconds, he’d flung himself onto the rope and rapidly scaled the hull to flop down to where Gularte and I hung onto the railing for dear life. Bob made no effort to grab anything, instead slithering about on the yacht’s polished and extremely slippery deck surface, like a seal moving over and among the polished shore rocks of some abandoned coastline.
“Come on,” he yelled, as he guided his big slithering body near to the edge of the deck, grabbing and pulling himself toward the open cockpit. Gularte and I both followed, as best we could, neither of us having any of the grace, balance or seemingly obvious capability of being able to handle every crazy move the gyrating boat made. In seconds, however, both of us were able to follow Elwell over the edge of the starboard transom and down into the cockpit’s interior. Both of us remained nearly flat on the cockpit’s deck, looking up at Elwell, standing at the helm with one hand on the wheel and the other working with chrome levers inset into the dashboard up and over to his right.
“We’re in an inshore hole,” he yelled back over his left shoulder.
“If I can get this thing in reverse, we might be able to pull back and run north, following the hole.”
I had no idea what Bob was really talking about, the violent movements of the boat beginning to make me feel a bit nauseated, on top of the multiple points of pain I was feeling from the beating I’d taken in just getting to a point where I could hug the base of the rotating passenger chair, spinning just above my head like a top.
The boat lurched backward, the bow pulling free. I realized that Bob had found reverse. Waves cascaded over the stern as it angled away from the sand and out toward the unending lines of breaking surf.
Each wave exploded as it struck the stern’s flat vertical surface, blasting what seemed like tons of water over all three of us.
“Here we go,” Bob yelled, this time louder than before. “Hang on for your lives,” he added, unnecessarily, as both Gularte and I were plastered to the deck, holding on tightly, as water washed over us, driven by the great stern-striking waves rolling in from the ocean. Gularte and I were lying in a small churning maelstrom trapped by the contained area of the cockpit itself.
The boat surged forward so strongly that I was pulled loose from the chair’s post, sliding toward the stern. My body stopped only when the power of the waves against the boat’s hull jammed the entire left side of my body against the rear bulkhead, with Gularte pushed hard into my right side. The roar of the obviously huge engines located below decks in the aft section of the yacht began to scream as they came to full power. The yacht continued to accelerate, and I felt more fear than I’d experienced since I’d made what now seemed like a foolish decision to board the foundering boat in the first place.
Suddenly, the yacht leaped into the air. My stomach lurched as I felt the uncomfortable effects of going into freefall. I tried to grab a deep breath, my body battered all over and my insides nauseated to the point where all I wanted to do was find some place to vomit.
The deck struck up at me, the water inside the cabin splaying toward outflow vents I hadn’t noticed. Before I could recover myself at all, I was in free fall once more. All I could do was land once more, now thankful that Gularte’s big muscled body was cushioning me by keeping me half-pinned to the bulkhead so I couldn’t suffer greater damage. The process of being pulled hard down against the deck and then being tossed into the air continued for what seemed like a long time, but I knew was only a few minutes in length. Finally, the deck stopped heaving and Gularte was able to pull away from me. I struggled to my knees, before crawling back to the no longer spinning passenger chair. I climbed up it to stand, grasping the forward lip of the cabin’s dashboard just back from where the windshield rose up.
“That worked great,” Bob, said over to me, “rode the hole and then waited for just the right swell to jump out of there. Smooth sailing now.”
I wanted to hug the big talented guard and thank him for saving my life, but instead turned away and deposited the contents of my stomach over the transom and into the sea.
“Man, can you handle a boat,” Gularte said to Elwell, holding onto the same chair I’d just let go of.
“Operated the guard boat out of Dana Point for years,” Bob replied, gently guiding the yacht along and between passing swells, the craft’s speed now that of a person walking or slowly running.
“We’ve got to get below,” I said, noticing the door set into, and two steps down, from the center of the cockpit’s transom.
Gularte moved past me and grabbed the door’s handle with one hand.
“Draw down,” I said, moving to be close to his left side, as I drew my own sidearm, thanking God for the invention of the clamshell holster the guy in Santa Ana had convinced me to purchase. I unsnapped my own holster, pushed down the butt and drew my .44 Magnum. I wasn’t the least worried about sand or water clogging the barrel. I knew from long experience in the jungle, that a wet barrel, or even one with some debris inside it, wouldn’t much affect the movement of a high velocity bullet penetrating or pushing through. Even fully underwater the magnum would fire, although the bullet coming out of the short barrel would be severely reduced in velocity and striking power by the resistance of the dense water it would be travelling through.
Gularte twisted the handle on the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He turned slightly, to look back at me. I noticed that there was a small deadbolt-style keyed lock above the levered door handle. If the door had been locked from the outside then it would have to have been locked using a key, which led me directly to the assumption that the lock had more likely been secured from the inside.
“What do you think?” Gularte asked, his own revolver held down along his right thigh.
I swallowed, the taste of the seawater I’d taken in not completely moderating the bitter taste of what I’d expelled overboard.
“Kick it down,” Bob said, regally standing straight at the helm of the yacht, looking, except for the lack of a naval uniform and his hand stuck into the coat, like Marlon Brando in the Mutiny on the Bounty. “Whoever’s in there may need medical help,” he continued.
I looked about the cabin and onto the deck, but there seemed nothing to strike the door with, other than Gularte’s foot. I didn’t like that, as I’d heard from more senior officers that kicking down locked doors was better left to movie and television shows, as many officers in days gone by experienced broken ligaments and bones from the experience.
“Handle,” Bob said, pointing through the windshield toward the center of the yacht’s forward deck, as if he’d read my mind.
I climbed onto the portside deck, up from the corner of the open cabin, and then worked my way forward after I got around the edge of windshield. The boat, although out of danger from crashing into any object, much less the shore, was still rocking up and down, as Bob kept it pointed out to sea. I reached the base of the mast and found what I’d hoped for. A large chrome plated handle was placed atop a big wheel, slotted around its outer edge. A thick line was running through the slot before moving to another wheel mounted at the base of the mast.
The crank was large and heavy, and although it looked at first glance to be attached to the wheel, came loose easily when I lifted on the shaft of its handle. I inched back with the freed handle in both hands, and then crawled toward the cockpit on my knees, cradling the crank until I got close enough to the windshield to be able to pass it up into Gularte’s waiting hands.
By the time I climbed around the windshield edge and over the transom Gularte was pounding his way through the thick and tough mahogany door.
With one last blow the door burst into hanging pieces. Gularte put the heavy crank down on the ledge just before where the glass windshield swept upward and took out his revolver. I did the same.
“uuuhhhrahhh,” he said, his voice barely over the noise of the wind. The guttural sound wasn’t new to me. It was the vocalization of angst, pride and self-expressiveness Marines had come to use with one another having just returned from being in the war.
Elwell still manned the controls next to us, fighting constantly to keep the yacht’s bow pointed into the swells and wind but not move too far from our position off the beach. Help would be coming and the people coming needed to know where to find us. I wore a portable radio with its funny spring cord hanging from the shoulder-clipped microphone all the way down to the main unit on my Sam Brown belt. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no reception out between the swells the boat was constantly riding up and over, as I’d tried. We were offshore with no means of communication with anyone at all.
Gularte stepped down and then stopped abruptly, wrinkling his nose slightly. He turned his head toward where I stood, just off his left shoulder, waiting to back him up as the two of us could not fit through the narrow passageway in front of us together.
“Diesel fuel,” he said, his wrinkled forehead turning the word into a question. “Not exhaust, but the raw stuff,” he went on, stepping down and through the broken wreckage of the door.
I examined the wood he’d battered through. The lock above the hanging levered handle was keyed to both sides. Whoever had locked the door had done so with a key, which meant it was a deliberate act, and also, the double-key thing likely meant that high security had deliberately been built into the expensive craft.
Gularte went the rest of the way down, unopposed, his body and head twisting about in every direction, trying to discover any potential threats, but there proved to be none. I stepped down behind him and was more than surprised by what I saw.
“Move toward the stern,” I said, “and be damned careful.” I stared at the scene surrounding me.
The main cabin was larger than I’d expected from up on the deck. Instead of the plush opulence I’d expected there were fifty gallon metal barrels. They were in rows up and down the inside bulkheads and along the hull on both sides. More barrels were stacked atop them, held to the hull by what looked like industrial strength bungee cords. The only open space was filled with a very large egg-shaped chunk of plastic that could only be some sort of inflatable lifeboat. I glanced back at the door and wondered how the thing had been transported down through it or how anyone wanting to save him or herself might get it up and back through that same door to use it. I followed Gularte, my magnum still drawn but my finger not on the trigger. The Smith and Wesson had no safety, but it was double action. In order to prepare to fire, the trigger had to be pulled through, which was hard to do, or the external hammer had to be cocked. The hammer on my weapon was always down, and not cocked, while I moved behind Gularte’s back.
We stepped carefully into a narrow hall, trying to keep one hand free for our weapons while using the other to try to maintain balance against the still rather violent movements of the yacht.
There were two bedrooms, each with a door located midway down the hall. There was nobody in them, although there were more stacked drums.
The hallway ended with a larger solid-looking door, made of some gray wood that looked thick and nearly impenetrable, here was no lock on it, unlike the door up top. Behind the gray door had to be someone who’d operated the craft. Gularte looked back at me, nodded, and then opened the door.
The diesels running suddenly overpowered all other sounds. The last door led to the engine room, and it became quickly evident that there was no one inside. Big fuel tanks ran from the deck up to the ceiling on each side. There was one large screw-type cap near the top of each tank, with a large funnel for each laying on the grating set between the engines and the tank, rocking gently with the hull’s movements caused by the waves.
“This thing,” I said, then raised my voice to talk over the clicking, clacking and soft roar of the two big main engines, “was converted for some kind of long-haul use, but where in hell could it have come from?”
“Mexico’s not that far,” Gularte answered, holstering his weapon. I followed suit. There was nobody on the yacht and there was no place big enough to hide someone that we could have missed.
We headed back to the main cabin, Gularte shutting the door and leaving most of the noise behind us. We stood together in the small spaces that weren’t occupied by the diesel-stained barrels.
“How in hell did this boat get here with nobody onboard?” Gularte asked, staring at the bizarre scene before us.
“Autopilot’s the only possible answer,” I replied, “or somebody jumped overboard after steering it toward the shore, and then swam to land at some other part of the beach.”
“Not bloody likely in these kinds of conditions,” Gularte replied.
Silently, I had to agree with him. We hadn’t yet checked for the presence of an autopilot, although Bob Elwell, manning the helm, might already have an idea about whether one of the devices was, or had been, guiding the craft.
I examined a first aid box that was mounted to the bulkhead covering the starboard side of the hull. It was gaping open, with nothing inside. I looked over, intending to ask Gularte what his thoughts might be. He was leaning down alongside the giant plastic egg.
“You know, Snow White, the only place somebody could hide in this thing is under the floor boards. He heaved up on his side of the giant egg.
I almost got out a scream of warning, but not quite, before the egg exploded.
My body was thrown against the bulkhead, the back of my head striking the corner of the metal first aid kit. At that instant everything seemed to go into slow motion. It was like when I’d been shot in Vietnam. Everything had slowed down as the bullets had torn through my torso. I twisted in the air, feeling and actually tasting the jungle mud my face was plunged into, the tsunami waves of monstrous intensity and pain coming but not quite there yet.
I was pinned against the wall and stunned, but not too stunned to ignore the trickle of blood leaking down the back of my neck, or the fact that I was rather painfully facing right into a hard rubber wall.
“You okay?” I rasped out, not fully comprehending what had happened. The big egg had been somehow boobytrapped or set to inflate when moved, for whatever reason, I slowly began to realize. The raft inside the egg had likely been modified to hold much more than a regular inflation bottle of carbon dioxide. The gas still hissed as the bottle or bottles inside the raft fully emptied.
“I’m okay, just pinned to the deck,” Gularte replied.
My ears rang. The explosion of the gas cannister’s opening had been extremely loud in such close quarters. I was lucky to be able to hear my partner at all, I knew.
“Are you alive?” a deep male voice yelled down through the broken door.
“We’re okay,” I yelled back, hoping he could hear me through the mass of hard-pressing rubber and the sound of the still escaping gas.
“I can’t leave the helm for more than a few seconds,” Elwell yelled down, “or we’ll broach.”
“Got it,” I yelled back, turning my head as best I could against the pressure on my face. “We’ll manage,” I went on, not really knowing quite how we’d manage. Bob was going to be no help. Even if he got the boat to Dana Point it would take too long. My breathing was okay but I could tell that Gularte’s, from across the cabin and lower down, was not.
I was able to squeeze my left hand between the rubberized canvas pressing hard against my face, chest and head. I moved my fingers into the slight opening high on my uniform shirt, then pushed them down under the white undershirt, which was a part of the required police uniform wear. My fingertips slid across a flat slotted surface. My P-38 G.I. can opener was there, ‘U.S. Shelby company’ letters stamped into its side not more than two inches from my eyes when I eased it out. I grasped the metal as firmly as I could, with three fingers, and pulled hard, breaking the slight but strong chain that held the opener and my dog tags around my neck. The tags and chain slid down in my shirt, as far as the pressured life craft ‘wall’ would allow. I manipulated the can opener but realized I needed my right hand, as well, to control it and provide enough pressure in order to possibly pierce the rubberized canvas.
“You okay?” I yelled over to the side, wincing as the cut on the back of my head continued to remain in contact with the sharp metal corner of the first aid kit.
“Yeah, but I can’t move at all,” Gularte replied, his voice more raspy than clear-toned. “Shouldn’t have moved that damned thing. Who in hell booby-traps a life raft?”
I worked away, getting the P-38 opener blade exposed, and then set into the hard side of the life raft’s tough surface. I had no doubt at all that the life raft left in the main cabin wasn’t there to be a life raft at all. It was there to provide a warning, slow or damage access, or protect a cargo that appeared to be already removed. I got the opener’s razor sharp point perfectly set, the backs of my hands scrunched into my chest. I pushed hard, trying to make sure that the opener’s tip didn’t fold away in any direction. Suddenly, there was a loud ‘punch’ sound, and then my fingers were blown down from my chest, the opener falling to the deck below. A gaping rent opened in the side of the rubberized canvas and compressed air, or carbon dioxide, at very high pressure, blasted out so quickly that my uniform-covered skin grew cold from its passage.
The pressure against me began to slowly lessen and in minutes I was able to breath normally, lift my arms, and reach back to put pressure on the back of my damaged head.
“Holy Christ,” Gularte yelled, pulling himself from the rapidly dwindling surface of the lifeboat. “The Dwarfs have to meet over this right away. This is some strange crap, indeed, what with the other stuff going on at this part of the beach.”
I pushed the rubberized canvas from my body and got myself under full physical control. Caring for the cut on my head would have to take a back seat to getting the boat to a place of safety in port and ourselves off of it. The Dwarfs could wait. There’d be plenty of time to fully investigate and examine the yacht once Bob guided it into Dana Point harbor, not more than three miles distant.
The smell of diesel fuel permeated everything. I was happy that I’d quickly discounted using my magnum to blow a series of holes in the lifeboat’s skin. Although diesel fuel had a much higher flash point than gasoline, the fumes, under pressure, and in the presence of whatever else might be lurking inside the yacht’s hull, might very possibly have been the end of both Gularte and me.
I crawled up the steps, working myself through the sharp wooden slivers and panels of the broken cabin door. Once inside the protected area of the helm area I began to breathe easier.
“The Cavalry’s arrived,” Bob yelled down at me. I looked up and was surprised. I understood why he was yelling. A giant CH53 Marine helicopter floated over the surface of the ocean, blowing winds of almost a hundred miles per hour over the yacht. The noise grew and grew as the monster aircraft drew closer.
“Stand down and prepare to be boarded,” a loud scratchy voice said, like from God above, overpowering even the sound of the giant helicopter’s spinning turbines and fast-moving blades. I struggled to get to the side of the exposed cabin and peered out across the storm and wind-tossed ocean. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Two U.S. Coast Guard vessels sat bobbing on the surface not a hundred meters from where Bob struggled to keep the yacht in one place. Another different kind of chopper was coming in low, leaning slightly to turn and clear the end of the nearby pier to get to us.
“What is it that we’re supposed to do in order to be prepared to be boarded?” Gularte asked, from just behind me.
Neither Bob nor myself had any answer to give him.
The big CH-53 slowly moved until it was directly over the yacht, smoothing the sea all around us, the swells now muted and almost calm looking as they passed under the yacht. I watched the San Clemente Lifeguard boat approach the stern of the yacht with two guards aboard. One threw a line over the stern, which Gularte scrabbled across the deck to grab and begin pulling on. Another line came down from the monster helicopter hovering over our heads, its noise making any speaking or hearing impossible. Armed combat ‘reconnaissance’ Marines came rappelling down the rope from the chopper. Gularte, Bob Elwell and I were literally pulled and hustled to the back of the yacht. The Marines wore no designating patches, identity tags or ranks to denote that’s what they were. They were hard but silent and stern in their movements. I intrinsically knew their kind, however and there was no arguing with them.
Battered, bruised, cut, soaked to the skin, and near deaf, Gularte and I allowed ourselves to be helped overboard and into the lifeguard boat, with Elwell able to make it on his own. Once we were aboard the guard boat took off toward the end of the pier, accelerating to full speed. The boat didn’t go to the end of the pier however, instead moving out and around it before heading straight north toward what I assumed was Dana Point Harbor.
I looked back. Before we were out of sight of the yacht, I was able to see that it was already under tow from one of the nearby U.S. Coast Guard boats, with the big helicopter rotating overhead.
“Hey, I said to Gularte and Elwell, both half lying and staring out over the stern of the guard boat, “the yacht’s not being taken with us to Dana Point. They’re towing it straight out to sea.”
Neither replied, their full attention directed toward the yacht and the near circus of its being towed away inside an umbrella of overwhelming air and sea power. I thought of the Bronco, very likely still sitting on the sand above the shore, idling near silently where we’d left it, with Elwell’s Jeep next to it to keep it company, waiting for our return. Gularte wanted to call a meeting of the Dwarfs, but I wasn’t at all certain that, if we did, any of our other members would believe what had just happened.