by Larry Caillouet
It was a sunny day in early November, 2015, when my phone rang. “Are you available to crew for me from North Carolina to the Caribbean?” I had just retired from Western Kentucky University, so I was pretty much available for anything. “When do you plan to depart?” I asked. “Can you fly to Beaufort tomorrow?” I was certainly caught off guard by the immediacy of the request, but I was quite interested in the opportunity. Diana and I had recently purchased an Oyster 55 with plans to make ocean passages like this next year when the boat’s equipment had been upgraded, so a passage from the east coast of the US to the Caribbean on a similar boat would be excellent experience. I could imagine all the practical things I could learn from this passage that we would soon be making on our own boat. “Well, I’m available but I’ll have to check on airline schedules. Let me check and I’ll let you know.”
I don’t usually get calls like this, but I had talked with the caller, Robert Jacobson, earlier in the year when he was moving his boat from Newport, Rhode Island, down to the Chesapeake or further down the coast. He had a beautiful Hylas 54, almost a clone of our Oyster, but he was a bit indefinite about exact dates of departure and the intended destination so we never worked out a plan to sail together. This November passage was a little indefinite regarding destination, maybe St. Martin, maybe another island in that area of the Caribbean, but I knew all these islands and it made no difference to me.
I was expecting flights on such short notice to be either unavailable or very expensive, but I found a flight from Nashville, TN, to New Bern, NC, for a reasonable price. I booked it and accepted the invitation. Robert explained where his boat was located in a tiny marina between Morehead City and Beaufort. This was about 40 miles from the airport, but Robert told me that it would be easy to get a taxi in the airport. I packed my sea bag, booked a shuttle to the Nashville airport, and flew out the next afternoon.
I had never been to the Morehead City-Beaufort area and didn’t understand how many little marinas and private docks lined the inlets in this area, so finding Robert’s boat turned out to be a challenge. It was dark by the time we arrived in the area, but the Uber driver was patient and helpful. We made several stops before finding the right dock, but a hundred dollars later I was looking at a gorgeous red hulled Hylas named Alcyone. Robert welcomed me aboard and asked if I had eaten supper. I hadn’t so he showed me where everything was stored in the galley and said I could eat whatever I wanted while he went into town. “Town? Do you have a car here?” I asked. “Yes, I’m going to spend the night with a friend before we leave tomorrow.” This raised Red Flag #1: He had hustled me down here on a moment’s notice and had a car, but let me pay for an expensive taxi to the poorly described location of his boat. That didn’t sit too well with me, but I didn’t want to get an adversarial relationship started as soon as I arrived. So I made a sandwich while he gathered up a few things to go into town.
“Which cabin is mine?” I asked him before he left. Clearly the owner’s cabin aft would be his, but which of the two forward cabins would be mine? The other crew wasn’t on the boat at that moment but I assumed that he or they had already chosen a cabin and stored gear in it. “You can have either cabin you want. My other crew cancelled at the last minute.” Whoa! Red Flag #2: Robert hadn’t told me that this was going to be a double handed passage for 1200-1400 miles. I came here at the last minute so I must be the replacement for that crew, which means that Robert knew when he invited me that it would just be the two of us, but he hadn’t mentioned that little fact to me. I hadn’t bargained for a double-handed ocean passage,but maybe it would be a good learning opportunity. On the one hand,it would require learning and adjusting to a different watch schedule than the 3-hour rotations I had used before. This might be valuable for a future passage on my own boat. On the other hand, it would be physically demanding for 8 to 10 days at sea. And it was unethical for Robert to conceal that information from me until after I had arrived. It was already night time and I wasn’t going anywhere before the next day, so I didn’t voice my complaint. I could sleep on it and decide in the morning whether to do the passage or bailout.
In the morning I was reading and sending emails when Robert called me. He was going to stop at West Marine and then would come to the boat. We wouldn’t set sail immediately, he told me, because he wanted to haul the boat and have it surveyed. “Surveyed?” I asked him. “Yes, for insurance.” That didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Did he just now discover that he didn’t have insurance or would need a survey to get insurance? And why did I have to hurry down here if he was going to have the boat hauled? And who would own a half-million dollar yacht without having it insured?
I was still doing emails when I heard a knock on the hull of the boat. “Robert, is that you?” I called out. “No, it’s not Robert.” So I set my laptop aside and went up topsides to see who it was. Imagine my shock to see five men in uniform standing there with guns! I quickly surveyed the scene and saw that a large white power boat had pulled up behind the Hylas effectively blocking its exit. Then the questions started:
“Who are you?”they asked me. I gave them my name.
“Is Robert Jacobson on the boat?” “No.”
“Is anyone else below?” “No.”
“Are there any weapons below?” “I don’t know. I just got here! I haven’t searched the boat.”
The men came aboard and after taking my cell phone, two of them searched the boat. Satisfied that Jacobson was not on the boat, they came back to me.
“When will Jacobson be back on the boat?” “When you knocked I thought you were him. I’m expecting him at any time.”
“How do you know Jacobson?” “I don’t really know him.”
“What are you doing on this boat?” OK, that’s a reasonable question, I thought, but I knew this was going to be hard to explain. This is hard enough to explain to sailors, but these guys, two FBI and three North Carolina Marine Patrol, are going to have a hard time understanding why anyone would get aboard a boat of someone they don’t know to leave the country and sail across the ocean.
I began to explain that there is a service which matches boat captains who need crew with sailors who are willing to crew on the boats for the experience of the passage. I had been in touch with Robert earlier in the year about crewing for him, and he had called me again about crewing on this passage. So I had had some interaction with him, but I didn’t know him. I just knew that he had a high quality blue water boat, and I was willing to contribute my time and work in exchange for the experience.
The men asked me a couple more times about when Jacobson would get back to the boat and I had given the same answer as before, that I expected him at any minute. Then the fun really began! Jacobson pulled into the parking lot and was walking toward the boat when he noticed the men with guns standing at his boat. The men with guns noticed Jacobson noticing them, and they took off chasing him on foot. He made it back to his SUV just before they caught up to him with guns drawn, and spun gravel in his getaway. The two FBI jumped into their black Suburban and raced after him. The other three sat down with me on the boat and explained what was happening.
It was not a drug bust as I had assumed. Jacobson was wanted in California for a few million dollars’ worth of mortgage fraud. The FBI had been tracking him for about two years and had caught up to him now. With that explanation, everything began to make sense. Jacobson had probably bought the boat with embezzled cash. That’s why he didn’t need to have insurance to get a loan for the boat. He needed insurance now either to protect his “investment” or because he was planning to scuttle the boat to convert its value back into cash! That startling thought made me wonder what he planned to do with me. Set me off on an island? Worse? There were no bullets fired that day, but I had certainly dodged one. The FBI had been business-like and professional with me. If defrauded home buyers had found me on Jacobson’s boat they might have taken action first and asked questions later. If the Coast Guard had intercepted us in international waters the explanations would be much more difficult. And the ambiguous end-game might have been worse.
The FBI returned to the boat without Jacobson. He had gotten away. They explained that they didn’t want to endanger local people with a high speed chase, but they were confident that they would catch him. And in the meantime they had his boat, his means of leaving the country with no record of his departure. They asked me to write a statement of all that I knew about Jacobson and my experience with him, which I did. “Is there any need for me to hang around here any longer?” I asked. “No. In fact, if you will show us how to start the boat, we are going to impound it in Wilmington.” I showed them how to start the boat and gathered up my gear, which I hadn’t really unpacked. Being thoroughly professional, and not really knowing if I was just a chump who was nearly shanghaied or a clever accomplice to the attempted getaway, they searched my sea bag in case it was full of cash instead of sailing gear. Finding no cash, they were satisfied that I was just a chump.
I booked a return ticket to Nashville and for a ride back to the airport I called the same taxi who had brought me to the boat. The conversation on the ride to the airport was considerably more animated than the first ride to the boat was.
And Jacobson? Now doing 6.5 years in prison for mortgage fraud.